Spotlight: Doing Business with Masti
Ricky (left), with his wife, mother, and children—celebrating the opening of Masti.
Community watchers have seen Ricky Walia grow up in the shadow of his father Jay Ahluwalia into a budding entrepreneur. Besides being a restaurateur on a roll, this young man has expanded into show and concert promotions, and has ambitious plans to create an empire in the hospitality sector. With his drive and his magic touch, he just might be the right person to dream such big dreams.
It’s another one of those grand Indian weddings. As is often the case, food is one of the star attractions. Over a dozen different kinds of appetizers are spread over several stations in the lobbies surrounding the banquet hall in this 5-star venue. The appetizers, each more tantalizing than the last, seem like they are created to match and one-up the grandness of the venue. The guests, hopelessly lured, seem in a trance as they gravitate from one station to another.
The hard work behind the sweet success: Ricky doesn’t shy away from doing frontline work even as he oversees a small management team to stay above his varied enterprises.
Making all this possible is a staff of over a dozen hard working men and women from the catering company—constantly refilling the chafing dishes and preparing concoctions that need assembly. A young man is busy prepping each individual serving of a fancy fusion chaat appetizer. The flair with which he sprinkles the final layer of chaat masala on each plate is reminiscent of the street vendors of India. With his slight build and boyish looks, the young man could easily be mistaken for a new recruit of the catering company, perhaps someone moonlighting between college semesters.
Turns out the unassuming fellow is not only the mastermind behind the creative appetizers spread out there, but also the driving force of the Walia Hospitality Group, parent company of Café Bombay, the caterer for that evening’s sumptuous spread.
Meet Ricky Walia—who first came onto the scene as a young boy, at Maharaja, the restaurant started by his father Jay Ahluwalia. JT, as he is popularly known, had already taken a sleepy premium restaurant from its past owners and transformed it into a reasonably successful one. Speaking of his time there, Ricky says, “I started working at Maharaja at the age of 15. I learned from the bottom up, washing dishes, cutting vegetables and meat, cooking, busboy, I learned the whole industry through high school and college. Maharaja was the start of my learning experience; Café Bombay was the start of my business experience.”
Marrying his culinary passion with academics—he has studied at Le Cordon Bleu and also has a business degree—he launched Café Bombay in 2003, right out of college.
After successfully establishing the restaurant, Ricky quickly staked his claim on weddings across the Southeast, catering to more than 250 a year in the region. Café Bombay soon became one of the preferred caterers for major hotel chains, offering a variety of cuisines.
Indeed, CB Catering is famous for its unique presentation styles. Ricky dreams them up, no kidding. “My wife tells me I talk about food in my sleep. It’s in my blood, it’s what I have been doing.”
Creativity, fusion, and a visual appeal define the food offerings of CB catering.
As other restaurants popped up around the city eyeing a piece of the catering pie, Ricky realized he had to set himself apart from the cutthroat competition. “I started taking regular food and twisting it to make it presentable. Anyone can make food, put it on a pan and place it on the buffet table but what is so special about it? Your eyes eat before your stomach; if it looks good you definitely want to eat it,” he explains.
For the sake of consistency and quality, Ricky has a 4,000 sq. ft. central kitchen that handles food preparation for both Café Bombay and its CB Catering arm. But Ricky’s not one to rest on his laurels. With grand expansion plans in store, he is busy building a 20,000 sq. ft. production facility so that quality across all outlets, no matter which city, remains the same. The new kitchen is scheduled to open in two months.
Recently Ricky decided to get innovative with cuisine, hitting upon the idea of a restaurant that would offer all his popular catering items, but wrapped in a more adventurous concept. And thus was born Masti, Ricky’s latest offering that is creating a good buzz already, just a few months into it.
This new Indian restaurant in the Toco Hills neighborhood in Atlanta, as its name implies, is based on a fun concept, going by the music that greets you at the entrance. The eye picks up a young vibe here from the bold, bright colors and patterns embedded in rich wall art and upholstery. And then there’s the food—unique, creative, and inviting, with an element of surprise. Alfredo Korma Pasta or Amritsari Fish n’ Chips, anyone?
“People say, ‘Why did you open two Indian restaurants a mile from each other?’ But the concept and food are different. What you get at Café Bombay you are not going to get at Masti,” explains Ricky Walia. “Café Bombay has its following. You want authentic chicken tikka masala and goat curry? Go there. You want something you haven’t tried? We have it at Masti.”
This youthful, hyper-energetic restaurateur is never short of new ideas, and in the works is yet another project—a cigar lounge! When the space right next to Café Bombay turned vacant, Ricky seized the opportunity. He excitedly scrolls through images on his phone, showing renderings of what his vision will look like in reality, as he shares, “This will be 8000 sq. ft. and upscale, with a walk-in cellar, Scotch tasting room, VIP booths, catering to the mature 30+ crowd—something Atlanta has not seen in the desi market.” Panache Bistro and Lounge is slated for an August 2015 launch.
Ricky points out, “My vision for the Indian market is to bring what hasn’t been brought yet in Atlanta. It is in New York, Houston, Chicago, but the grand American style for Indian business has not been introduced here. That’s where I come in.”
It’s the same principle he has applied to the two event halls he operates in the Atlanta community. Occasions, in Tucker, offers clients the ambience of an elegant hotel ballroom but at much less than the sticker shock such an extravagance entails. Ricky has the math down. “You go to a hotel, you pay $20,000 minimum without food, so I said we will give the same service, the same ambience, pay $25 a person, so 300 people can enjoy within $7,000.” More recently, he opened Signature Ballroom in Suwanee, featuring marble floors and walls. Ricky spent a pretty penny there but has left no stone unturned in providing his clients with grand service.
The Walias as show promoters—seen here with Adnan Sami (left photo) and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (right photo). Up next is Asha Bhosle, coming this month at the Fox Theater.
Not risk averse, Ricky has also forayed into the showbiz industry with CB Entertainment, bringing in artistes like Adnan Sami and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan for Atlanta concerts. Carefully calibrating the monies involved in organizing an event of this magnitude, his persistence has paid off. Next up is an Asha Bhosle show. “You go to other cities, every other month you have something going on to keep people entertained. In Atlanta, it is once or twice a year, maybe—nothing to the scale where it is continuous entertainment.”
As show promoter, Ricky is involved with buying rights for the show, booking the venue, putting the entire production together and then bringing the artistes to Atlanta and taking care of their arrangements while also handling ticket sales. Not every show has been a moneymaking machine. “The first two shows we broke even or lost money. Is it worth it? Yes, I look at it as marketing money,” he says. “I want Indians to enjoy desi music here. Even though I was born in Atlanta—I have been here my whole life—my roots and culture are desi.” Fluent in both Hindi and Punjabi, Ricky doesn’t let his second generation status come in the way of connecting authentically with his desi clients.
When it comes to his company’s name and brand, Ricky pulls out all the stops. The last two years, he has hosted sold out New Year’s parties. With a $99 all-you-can-eat-and-drink concept, it’s no surprise that 1,000 people turned up at both events. Free flowing food and top shelf liquor had guests thrilled. “I believe in one thing: if you have a job to be done, do the right thing, go all out. Don’t cut corners, because that’s your reputation at stake.”
“Whatever he promises, he delivers, and that’s what counts,” says Global Mall’s Shiv Aggarwal. Ricky provided the catering at his daughter’s wedding in Atlanta. “One of the beautiful things about him, which I like the most, is he is there personally to make sure that the food, the service, the quality, and guest satisfaction are there. He is an energetic young man and I am sure he will do great.”
Ricky credits his father Jay Ahluwalia (JT) when it comes to his business sense. “My dad sees the vision that I have, and he is there to support and encourage me. He says, “Tell me where you need me to be and I will be there.” Dad and I are side by side. Dad is my base, he gave me the structure to build upon, and I am just changing the business perspective to go with the times. At the end of the day he lets me make the final decision, but my father, mother, wife, and sister are my biggest support.”
The father-son team of JT and Ricky have successfully grown their business from a single location restaurant to a few different enterprises in the food and entertainment industry.
The father-son duo works well together, recently consolidating all their different business brands under the umbrella of Walia Hospitality Group (WHG). Starting out as an 8-person restaurant at Café Bombay, they are now a growing business with 80 employees and actively hiring. “The plan is not just to stick to the restaurant industry but to hit every hospitality industry around: cruises, airlines, hotels, lounges, clubs. That’s what we are doing. And once we hit a certain level, the group will become a management company, that’s why the group was formed,” says Ricky, confidently outlining the roadmap he has planned.
How does he do it all? Good delegation, for one, is the key. While Ricky is the Managing Director of CB Catering, his Assistant Manager / Catering Director executes his ideas and is slowly being trained to take over day-to-day operations, so that Ricky is free to focus on WHG’s future projects.
The very public face of his business makes Ricky susceptible to criticism at every step of the way. But this redoubtable restaurateur never fails to rise to the challenge. In fact, he welcomes it. “We have review cards,” he says, displaying one from the table at Masti. “Anything bad, I get it right away, my managers tell me, we fix it.”
“I have managers for every business but at end of the day, I control all operations. Managers are answerable to me, but anyone who is working under them I don’t need to know about. Who comes in, at what time…I don’t have time for small details. I only want to deal with one person in each business,” he says. “The complaint goes to my management team, and I say only one thing: fix it. One bad review can bring in bad vibes, one bad mouth will turn into another ten. I take reviews and criticism very strongly, I believe it’s all constructive, has to be—it only makes you better, not worse.”
And where is the time for family and leisure amidst all the action? For Ricky, there’s none. Married and a father of two toddlers, his business empire takes center stage for now. Commuting from Snellville daily and working six days a week, returning home way past midnight most days, Ricky rarely gets to see his kids. “Once a week, Monday or Sunday, I spend time with them. My wife is not involved in the business, but she is very supportive.”
Dad, JT, who has his own long history with the city and with restaurants, shares, “My vision was to open as many Indian restaurants as possible. Now, with Ricky coming into the picture and taking over, I can see that vision becoming possible. I am proud that he has taken what I have been doing for the last 25 years to a different level.”
Ricky goes a step further when he adds in a determined, matter-of-fact way, “My vision is for WHG to be synonymous with everything hospitality.”
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