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Feel Happy High with the man who knows the ins and outs of wine and can consult you on how to pair your restaurant with the best beverages – Q & A with Ajit Balgi

Recognized nationally and internationally as a bar consultant, wine educator and alcobev writer Ajit Balgi, Founder, The Happy High, is India’s leading beverage expert. He has been the first one to conduct an open level 2 course in wines and spirits by Wines and Spirits Education Trust (WSET London) in India. From being a WSET Certified wine educator to being a delegate from India at the Austrian Wine Summit 2015, his work has taken him to over 10 countries. He has also bagged the Cochran fellowship in wines and spirit by the US government in 2016 and more recently was invited to be a part of the Greek Oenotalia 2017 in Athens and a wine centric program by the Italian trade commission in Verona. He is also invited to be to be a judge at the International Wine Challenge, UK. Being associated with beverages and hospitality for over a decade now, in an exclusive conversation with Ajit Balgi, we explore more about his professional and personal life:

The entrepreneurial journey: Ajit shares,“The Happy High was conceived in October 2013 and it has been a test of perseverance all throughout. The first year was all about pushing myself and putting doubts of my close ones to rest. The second year was about finding more feet and getting business from existing connects and the third was about branding The Happy High. Each passing year has given me a new wave of confidence.”

The journey: When asked about the vision, Ajit shares, “I started The Happy High out of passion for wines, spirits and food. After 8 years in beverage operations and 2 years of liquor consulting I moved away from the biz to pursue an MBA from S P Jain, Mumbai. Brief stints with FMCG during the course and a year post-study in services marketing and sales made me realize that I was made for wine and spirits. I decided to come back to the biz, and The Happy High was eventually born.” He adds, “The Happy High aims to be the one stop shop for wine and spirit education and consultancy services in India. We intend to raise the bar of wine and spirit appreciation by creating awareness about quality with both professionals and the end consumer. Our key driving forces are our passion for beverages and the mediocrity in the food and beverage business which we aim to raise.”

Favorite food and drink: “I am an eggetarian by choice and I am receptive to all cuisines both Indian and international. If I were to single out a go to meal, it would be the South Indian breakfast of idli, wada and dosas and filter coffee. Speaking about my choice of drinks, the weather, the time of the day and food play a role in the pick. Margarita, Boulevardier, dark rums, Amarones etc., the choices are too many given the repertoire of the drinks world,” shares Ajit.

What makes a place a great place to eat: On this Ajit says, “A great place to eat is one which offers exceptional food in a hygienic setting with unobtrusive service in a peaceful environment. The service and the ambience can be overlooked sometimes if the food is superlative.”

Greatest professional achievements and biggest setback: “Sustaining for 3 years is a sign of success for me, however if you look to quantify success, it is sum of everyday achievements, be it winning a project or getting an encouraging customer feedback. There have been no setbacks, we may have paused for a bit, but we have been on an upward trajectory. People in positions and their attitude, especially the ones known to me have been a disappointment, but not a roadblock,” says Ajit.

Coping with funding and other such issues in the business: Many entrepreneurs complain about not succeeding in business due to lack of adequate funding, etc. On this Ajit shares, “My business is driven by the love for wines and spirits and not by valuations. I have focused on the quality of work and not volumes and have ploughed back from the revenues to allocate to marketing or operations. The liquor trade operates in the VUCA world and it is better to tread slow with a strong foundation.”

The lessons learnt: When asked about what lessons has he picked up from his experience, Ajit shares, “There has been no setbacks, but disappointments and learnings have been plenty. The attitude of people known to me trying to squeeze the maximum out of me given my position was harrowing and I obliged as a friend initially. ‘Do it for free, I will give you a break,’ was a statement I often encountered! I quickly learnt that there are only a few friends in the business. I started refusing to work for free and this time they were disappointed. Would they have agreed to work without a salary?”

Future plans: “The forthcoming year is more about collaborations and events. We look forward to associate with more luxury, lifestyle and liquor brands to put together some very gourmet evenings in elegant settings. We also plan to engage with more corporates' to educate their associates on the art of wining and dining well.” He adds, “We realize that an average Indian sales professional, especially in the international sales role or HNI relationship management need to be abreast with art of dining as sales conversations often happen over after-work meeting over drinks.”

Importance of Education: Ajit shares, “Education both formally in the university and informally by travelling the Universe have played an important role in me working well as an entrepreneur. However education doesn’t suffice to take the entrepreneurial leap. Entrepreneurial route is more about your mental strength to leave something constant, a job in the pursuit of something uncertain. No education can get you ready for it in my opinion. Education perhaps makes the journey a bit easier!"

Work-life balance: Sharing more on how he maintains a balance between his personal life and business, Ajit shares, “Since I have made my passion my business, so my business is sort of integrated in my personal life. My family and friends have been of immense support and they are part of my business and my time at work. I think the secret is to love what you do and also make the other dear adore it.”

Advice for the young entrepreneurs: “With so many restaurants opening and shutting down, I have realized that most of them do not get the core of the restaurant right i.e. the food and the cocktails. All the money is spent on the décor and the façade only to act pound foolish while appointing food and beverage consultants. So fix your F&B first before anything else.”

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