Cover A selection of signature dishes from Aliyaa (Photo: Cinnamon Group)

Adding a dash of heart and soul to the local F&B industry

Step into any of Cinnamon Group’s restaurants or bars, and you’ll be amazed by their decor. From the Sinatra tunes and framed black-and-white photos of Frank’s Bar to the signed sports memorabilia adorning the walls of cricket-themed pub Sticky Wicket, no expense is spared to create an engaging, immersive atmosphere. This dedication to detail is strongly emphasised by Cinnamon’s managing director Abbi Kanthasamy, who enjoys conceptualising the vision behind his restaurants.

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“Our dedication to detail is what’s common across all our restaurants. We work with a great design firm and do a lot of great work in-house. At Kikubari, for example, it’s like you’re sitting on the beach, and not just because of the seafood we served. There are glass tiles on top of sand and a feeling of being close to the ocean. At Nero Nero, you’re in a small walking street in the South of Italy. Our interiors are always unique,” says Abbi.

This Sri Lanka-born entrepreneur, who grew up in California, is a man of many talents. Apart from running his restaurants, Abbi is also an avid photographer; many Cinnamon Group outlets have his work on their walls. In 2017, he even published a book of photographs of Sri Lankan street cricket. Abbi may seem serious, almost solemn at first but stay a while in his company, and a warm, jovial side emerges.

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The man smiles as he recalls the story behind his first restaurant, Aliyaa, one of the earliest places in Kuala Lumpur to serve Sri Lankan food. “It was 2007, nine years after I first came to Malaysia. One of my friends came to my house, and we gave him a Sri Lankan meal. He enjoyed it so much and wondered why he couldn’t get it anywhere else. He told me I should open a restaurant,” Abbi enthuses. “Aliyaa is my favourite. It’s my first, it's Sri Lankan, and it feels like mum’s food.”

Abbi makes sure never to lose sight of his priorities. To him, the most important asset of his business will always be the people. He shares the story of a Sri Lankan man who originally came to work in his house as a butler. After discovering he had a knack for cooking, the man was sent for culinary training and is now the sous-chef at Nadodi.

I think it’s a very simple concept. People who feel good about themselves will always do a great job. Invest in your people and you can never go wrong,
Abbi Kanthasamy

This principle of treating people well was put to the test during the recent pandemic. Despite the challenges, the group refused to let any of its employees go, although it would have been an easy way to cut costs. The decision proved to be the right one as business recovered over time with the group eventually achieving record sales.

The Cinnamon Group currently has major expansion plans, with three new restaurants coming soon. Get ready for gourmet pizza kitchen The Pie Guys, seafood cloud kitchen The Claw, and Spanish-themed steakhouse Bocado. Two more outlets of Yarl, famed for Northern Sri Lankan cuisine, are opening in Taman Tun Dr Ismail and Heritage Row Kuala Lumpur.

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Abbi may seem to be a model entrepreneur in many aspects but he always makes sure to keep himself grounded. One of his favourite sayings, stuck on the walls of some of his kitchens, is: “There are two types of people in the world. Those who are humble, and those who are about to be.” He says: “When you get arrogant and think you know everything, that’s the day you go in the opposite direction. We try to get that principle to trickle down to every person at every level of our organisation. Stay humble. Stay hungry. Keep learning.”

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