Hospitality Education

July 10, 2024 •

5 min reading

Leveraging hospitality education into a restaurant empire

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In the ultra-competitive realm of higher education, hospitality schools are often erroneously regarded as mere training grounds for future hotel staff or kitchen helpers in hotel resorts. This misconception stems from those unfamiliar with the industry who often conflate vocational hospitality training with the broader curriculum of a hospitality business school. Noted Food & Beverage entrepreneur and EHL Hospitality Business School alumnus Rahul Khanna chalks this up to the outdated idea that a hospitality manager is just “serving tables and peeling onions.”

In reality, hospitality management degrees cultivate creativity, innovation, and a global perspective, preparing graduates for success across various roles, from luxury retail marketing to asset management and more.

While Rahul did spend time in the kitchens of luxury hotels in Europe and Asia during his academic days as an intern, it was the understanding he gained behind the scenes that equipped him with the knowledge and skills needed to kickstart Azure Hospitality, which today operates more than 50 restaurants across India, including the renowned Mamagoto.


To EHL and beyond

For Rahul, embarking on a career in hospitality wasn’t simply a spur-of-the-moment decision when he first enrolled at EHL over 20 years ago. Coming from a family with longstanding links to the hospitality industry, he selected EHL not only for its academic excellence and reputation, but also for its strategic location in the heart of Europe. This allowed Rahul to maximise his semester breaks on memorable road trips with friends.

We explored everywhere: Tuscany, Milan, Paris, Barcelona, Greece… of course, Switzerland.

At the same time, Rahul’s keen interest in brand creation and storytelling led him to globetrotting internships at Mandarin Oriental in London and Hong Kong, exposing him to a (literal) world of F&B concepts. "I was lucky to have good bosses who taught me a lot about F&B," he recalls.

While EHL offers students opportunities to cultivate their own startups, Rahul didn't initially have entrepreneurial aspirations at that time. Instead, after graduation, he began building his career as a team leader at Burj Al Arab. That is until a chance meeting in India with a childhood friend ultimately changed his career trajectory forever.

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A serendipitous homecoming

I came back to India not looking to open anything, and met an old friend [Kabir Suri] whose family owned international brands like Zuma and Roka.

And it was during that chance meeting that they began discussing the gaps they saw in India’s F&B scene. The discussion ultimately led to the creation of their first restaurant brand, Mamagoto, in 2010.

In conceptualising Mamagoto, their research pointed to a gap in the market and an unmet need within the increasingly affluent youth market. Their solution was to craft a diverse menu inspired by street foods across Asia, ranging from tom yum to satay and spring rolls. This eclectic mix of flavours even influenced the name Mamagoto, a Japanese phrase meaning “to play with food.” More than just catering to young consumers with global tastes, Mamagoto’s roots are personal, as Rahul admits “it’s also food that we ourselves enjoyed.”

In its first 4 years, Mamagoto started with just a few restaurants. This deliberate move stemmed from their deep industry knowledge, enabling them to strengthen their back-end office infrastructure. With a solid foundation laid, they then pursued private equity funding to fuel a more aggressive expansion strategy.

Today, their organisation, Azure Hospitality runs over 50 restaurants across India, including Mamagoto, as well as brands like Dhaba, Sly Granny, and Foxtrot, covering the gambit of global cuisines from Pan-Asian to Punjabi and Western.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how his holistic hospitality education at EHL laid the groundwork for his success, where Rahul recalls, "You learn everything from philosophy to wine to finance."


Hard truths in the restaurant business

Everyone knows that restaurant businesses are notoriously difficult to run, and for those aspiring to become F&B entrepreneurs, Rahul cautions “it’s a hike, not a sprint.”

Throughout his years in the F&B industry, he's learned that "the first few years are tough" for anyone aiming to succeed in the business, regardless of their background.

To many, running restaurants may appear glamorous, but beyond creative storytelling and delicious cuisine, successful organisations must operate efficiently across various business verticals. For instance, ensuring smooth cash flow is crucial, a task Rahul and his team achieve by adhering to a strict business model:

We keep head office costs minimal while also generating revenue through franchise royalties.

Another key lesson Rahul’s learned over the years for a restaurant to succeed is the effective management of staff. The golden rule, as Rahul puts it, is that “once you can manage your people, then everything else falls into place.” In fact, when asked about his proudest achievement, he says it’s “the responsibility I have for 1,500 employees and their families.”


Advice for future restaurateurs

Many entrepreneurs start their businesses with partners, but often those relationships can sour due to differences in vision, communication breakdowns, conflicting priorities, or diverging values.

So what in Rahul’s estimation makes for a strong partnership? More than just having patience and a willingness to be open to each other, Rahul stresses that effective partners must “focus on the journey instead of petty differences.”

In his years of experience, Rahul’s also found that many would-be restaurateurs do it for the wrong reasons, such as a desire for fame, or as an excuse to party.


His advice

"Do it for less vain reasons. Understand what you truly love about it and if you’re willing to build something difficult over time."

Discover his story


For those who are truly passionate about being part of the F&B industry, securing the right education is the first step to turning their restaurant dreams into reality. And for those who may still be unsure about getting a hospitality-related business degree, Rahul advises:

Choose a hospitality school if you love creativity, travel, and sensory experiences. Choose a business school if you like theory and data more than soul.


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