Riding on Innovation and authenticity: This fine-dine Italian chain has expanded to new markets in last four decades

Short Description
In an exclusive interview to Restaurant India, Amrut Mehta, Director, Little Italy Group talks about building brand on innovation and expereince.
  • Nusra Deputy Features Editor
Amrut Mehta

Who doesn’t love pizzas and pastas? Italian food was once an unfamiliar segment in our country, but now it has a very prominent presence in the food business and you see every second restaurant serving these items on their menu. It was way back in 1989 when Raj Mehta founded the first Italian restaurant in India, serving only a small Italian menu, consisting of pizzas, run by an Italian chef who was a part of the Osho commune in Pune. It was a great opportunity because no other restaurant in the country would serve Italian food to international travelers during that time. Slowly but steadily the demand for Italian food grew, and so did the restaurant. “We added more dishes to the menu and our Indian customers started growing too. This then led to setting up our Mumbai restaurant in 1995, and soon enough the recognition started pouring in. Often frequented by A-listers from Bollywood, the restaurant organically got the much-needed impetus,” shared Amrut Mehta, Director, Little Italy Group.

Many years later, in 2018, under the Little Italy brand, they introduced another and the first of many brands, ‘Akss,’ a modern Indian restaurant, meaning mirror or reflection. This restaurant sets out to reimagine or reflect Indian cuisine with its own touch, aided by the latest trends and modern cooking techniques. Akss is present in six locations, each with a unique menu inspired by the city it is located in, all aimed at recreating the city’s flavor onto a plate and elevating the whole dining experience.

The next brand to be added into the Little Italy family was ‘Tutto Bene’, in 2019. And, soon after in 2020, they entered into gourmet delivery with ‘Acasa’. “We had always seen this as part of our plans but the pandemic was the perfect platform to launch it and since then we have gone on to be present in most premium stores and are currently delivering pan India as well,” added Mehta who recently launched a mexican restaurant as well as a superfast Italian brand focusing on both delivery and functioning as a QSR brand. “This launch was focused on expanding our footprint into the QSR segment and was fueled by the rise in delivery sales through the pandemic,” he mentioned as he is set to expand the group to some prominent location and category. Currently, the brand has over 60 restaurants in 25 cities across four countries. Excerpts from the interview:

You have joined your father’s business after completing your studies. What new you have brought under the venture?

I started my journey with Little Italy Group when I was 16, and I have held various positions in the company since then. My focus was to help Little Italy evolve and elevate what they were offering at the time, as well as focusing on better customer experience. After a year of my joining, we began adding new brands to our existing portfolio. We worked extensively to conceptualize new brands, which would add value to our current offerings and fill gaps in the market. Since 2018, our R&D team has launched over five new brands, which have helped us be in a much better position, locally and globally.

Growth of vegetarian Italian segment

 

Indians have become more accepting of international cuisines as globalization exposed us to other cultures and now people expect the same authenticity and taste when the cuisine is served in India. While native food is usually consumed at home, when people are eating out, they prefer ordering other cuisines to have a new and unique dining experience. It's very important to strike a balance between authentic and acceptable dishes. We take pride in being able to tailor the Italian food experience for the Indian market and educating them over the years about Italian cuisine. It has been well accepted and as time passes we are focusing on more exotic and regional cuisines, and other lesser-known dishes as well.

I personally travel to Italy a couple of times in the year picking out the best ingredients, attending exhibitions, learning and training from chefs there and exploring trends which we plan to bring to India. It has been quite the journey from introducing penne and fusilli to Indians to now serving Truffle burrata stuffed Ravioli. It really goes to show how far we have come, how the cuisine has been well accepted and the progress we are making to serve the best Italian food in India. However, we have made it work and it goes to show how big vegetarianism is in India and now we have even launched a vegan menu which has been well accepted too.

What innovation have you brought into the business, especially for fine-dine restaurants like yours?

The pandemic created an unforeseen and uniquely challenging situation for all of us. Everything about a fine dine restaurant changed overnight. We were no longer allowed to accept dine-in guests and delivery which would normally be only 10% of our sales, became the focus. However, the only way to tackle it was with a lot of resilience, bravery, and teamwork. Thankfully being in this business for so long, and having built a team of dedicated individuals, we were able to get past it and adapt to the challenges presented by the pandemic and overcome it.

I think the key throughout this whole pandemic and crisis phase was for us to be agile, adaptive and be able to pivot our products and services, finding new opportunities and ways to serve consumers. Businesses that refused to adapt or saw the pandemic as a passing phase have suffered and have been left behind.  The pandemic created a lifestyle shift where consumers started eating in the safety of their homes either with food delivery or cooking themselves. Additionally, customers were looking for a combination of tasty and healthy food. This substantial lifestyle shift towards cooking at home during the pandemic gave us the idea of creating DIY kits which would enable our customers to recreate their favorite restaurant food at home.

You recently introduced a new pizza restaurant. Who are you targeting at the same restaurant?

Last month, we opened our first Piazza store in Seasons Mall Pune, which is an exciting concept we have been working on for the last two years. This is our flagship store and this month, we have expanded the brand and launched it at Inox, Pune as well. Piazza is a superfast Italian concept specializing in Pinsa Romana, Panninis, Pastas, and more; what makes this concept special is it’s a new pizza style which has never been done before. It's a more modern, healthier and gourmet version of the traditional pizza. We are very excited to grow this brand across India and to compete with major fast-food brands in the QSR segment.

 The brand would be present in high street locations, malls, movie theaters and similar high footfall areas attracting youngsters and families alike.

 

Running a multi-brand restaurant venture

 

Running a multi-brand restaurant is not an easy task. There are thousands of restaurants out there and you need to create novelty for your brand and stand apart from competitors with a distinct identity and USP. The key things that we focus on are quality and consistency, which we do not take for granted. The quality and consistency is at the crux of what we do and why we have been able to be market leaders for three decades now. Another key ingredient to remain in the business is that of innovation. You need to keep innovating and adding exciting experiences for your customers.

Who is your target customer?

 

Our target audience is everyone who loves good food. I would not restrict it to any cuisine or segment as we are now present in many different segments serving a variety of cuisines. We have historically had a larger family-oriented audience but now we are focusing on millennials and Gen Z customers too.

High on expansion

With Little Italy, we are growing internationally. Besides our four restaurants in UAE, we plan on expanding further in the Middle East and are looking at setting up five more restaurants in the next two years in countries like Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain.

We will also be entering the UK market with our flagship restaurant in London, and we plan to be in the US soon as well.  Piazza is another exciting and promising brand, which we hope to scale rapidly in India and overseas. We are looking at having 100 outlets in the next two years. Our grocery line Acasa is increasing its presence in more cities and we will launch a range of exotic unique products in India as well. We are setting up a factory to increase our production capacity which would also help us service the HORECA industry and export our products as well.

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