Any entrepreneur can count themselves lucky to create something successful even once during their career, but Abbi Kanthasamy is among the few people who have managed to pull off a successful business venture more than once.
“Spotting a good business opportunity is like finding the perfect ingredient in a bustling market. You need a chef’s instinct, a taste for what’s next in the market, and an eye for the real deal,” says the eagle-eyed, market-smart Founder and Group CEO of Cinnamon Group.
The Cinnamon Group certainly has a knack for eyeing a good opportunity. Their portfolio includes stalwarts such as Aliyaa, Nadodi, Nero Nero, Natalina, Frank’s Bar, and Bocado, just to name a few.
“Authenticity, that’s our secret sauce,” he says. “If it feels genuine and adds a zing to the culinary scene, it’s a go. We’re always sniffing around for something that’s not just another dish on the menu, but a story on a plate.”
This authenticity is at the essence of Aliyaa, a pioneer of Sri Lankan cuisine in Kuala Lumpur. Since it first opened its doors in 2007, the restaurant has become a bastion of authentic Sri Lankan fare and a venture that initially kicked off the Cinnamon Group’s epicurean voyage in Malaysia.
But Abbi’s relationship with Malaysia began even before that. His first encounter with the country that would become his home was back in 1998, right in the thick of the Asian financial crisis. Despite the economic challenges facing the country, he describes Malaysia’s atmosphere back then as “pulsating with a gritty determination.”
Abbi, who was then working for Lifestyle Solutions, a US-based furniture distributor, was in this part of the world on a business trip. “I wasn’t here to sightsee; I was on a mission from the Bay Area, a lone emissary of motion furniture, tasked with setting up a head office for quality control and procurement,” he recalls.
But something clicked. The steamy, bustling streets of the city bore a close resemblance to the landscapes of his homeland. “There was a sense of déjà vu in the air, a familiar rhythm to the streets, and smiles that felt like a homecoming.” It was here that he found a second family, or “a motley crew of amazing souls,” as he puts it, who took him in as one of their own.
Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and raised in Jaffna on the northern tip of the country, Abbi spent most of his teenage years in Palo Alto, California. He later ventured to Montreal, Canada, to further his studies, earning a degree in engineering from McGill University.
Meanwhile, his résumé doesn’t just boast a couple of highlights; it is crammed full of them. Soon after throwing in the towel at his corporate job with Lifestyle Solutions, Abbi launched his own furniture business, Domus Vita Design, in 2014.
Based in Toronto, it was a venture that he describes as diving headfirst into the deep end of furniture exporting and distribution. “It wasn’t just a job change; it was a jump off the cliff into the unknown. I was driven by a hunger for something that really lit my fire,” he says.
It paid off. Domus Vita has since obtained a licence from trusted North American mattress brand Sealy to manufacture and distribute their upholstered furniture. A big win in the furniture world and a huge milestone for Abbi and his team.
As for his foray into the culinary world, it only began nine years after he first stepped foot in Malaysia. Little did he know then that his life was about to take a delicious turn, thanks in part to his Sri Lankan helper, a culinary whizz trained by Abbi’s mother, Dr Parvathy Kanthasamy, a renowned maestro in Sri Lankan cuisine.
“One unexpected evening, I threw together some Sri Lankan nibbles at my pad and, bam! My friends went wild,” he says, sparking the idea to bring a taste of his homeland to Kuala Lumpur.
Inspired to bring the idea to life, Abbi stumbled on the perfect setting for Aliyaa when he spotted a vacant bungalow in Jalan Dungun. He then gathered a team who shared the same vision and dove headfirst into this new adventure.
Today, Aliyaa—renowned for its aromatic crab curries and fluffy appams—is a Michelin Bib Gourmand establishment and has earned many dining accolades over the years. The same goes for most of the other restaurants under the Cinnamon Group banner, including the Michelin-selected Nadodi, a restaurant that’s also recognised by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Last year, the Cinnamon Group bagged 15 awards at the HAPA Awards Malaysia Series (otherwise known as the “Oscars of Hospitality”). Among the award categories won were Best Chef, Best Restaurant, Service Excellence, and Restaurant of the Year across the Group’s various outlets. The Group itself scooped up the Resilience Award for their ability to push through the challenges brought on during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not bad for a company whose founder and group CEO’s first brush with the culinary world was as a teenager stacking sandwiches at a Subway in California and bussing tables at a Greek joint in Toronto.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
A self-proclaimed engineer turned gastronome, Abbi’s technical backbone of structure and design has helped shape the Cinnamon Group’s approach to crafting unique dining experiences. “I’m hands-on, especially when it comes to the structural and design elements,” he adds. “In each space under our banner, there’s a story being told—a tale crafted not just by me, but by a symphony of creative souls. We’re a team, each bringing our own spice to the table.”
A business thrives because of its people, according to Abbi, but how exactly does the company practise this people-centric approach? “We see each team member as a crucial part of our collective success. It’s not just about recognising their contributions; it’s about celebrating them,” he explains.
Offering training, mentorship, and opportunities for advancement is an integral part of how the Group operates. “When everyone feels a sense of ownership, they’re not working for us; they’re growing with us, and that’s what makes our work culture so dynamic.” Visionary leadership is just one part of the company’s approach. But the company sees it as a team effort rather than a singular vision. “We rally around a shared vision, setting our sights on not just the immediate goals but the bigger picture.”
“In each space under our banner, there’s a story being told—a tale crafted not just by me, but by a symphony of creative souls. We’re a team, each bringing our own spice to the table”
I ask him: What does it take to prevail in this industry, especially when managing multiple ventures? “It isn’t just about being a smart businessperson,” he says. “In my time running the Cinnamon Group, I’ve figured out it’s a wild mix of being able to dance to the ever-changing music of the market, having the guts to stand strong when the going gets tough, being a bit of a seer to spot what’s next, and, of course, innovation.”
Speaking of innovation, the Cinnamon Group is known to shake things up, even if it does raise a few eyebrows now and then. When asked if he could name any big gambles in his career, Abbi points out two circumstances: one would be starting Domus Vita, and secondly, the decision to open Nadodi in 2017, a high-end restaurant with a focus on South Indian cuisine.
“People told us we were out of our minds for thinking folks would pay top dollar for Indian fare,” he says. “We took that as a challenge, jacked up the prices, and poured in even better ingredients.”
The idea of Nadodi sprang largely from wanting to change the perception of South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine and as an ode to the early settlers of Malaysia and the surrounding region. The menu is a love letter to Indian heritage dishes, with elevated recipes and creations that reflect the richness of South Indian culture.
As it turns out, people do pay big bucks for excellent Indian fare. Nadodi recently moved to its new home in the swanky Four Seasons Hotel in Kuala Lumpur and has been asked to feature a selection of dishes at the Singapore Formula One Paddock Club.
Abbi isn’t a stickler for the rules, but when it comes to taking risks, he believes it all boils down to having commitment and faith. “Someone once told me it’s one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. That’s another one of our pillars. We’ve made mistakes, but that mentality increases one’s odds of success.”
At the same time, he acknowledges that the Malaysian F&B scene today is no longer the same as it was when he first set foot in the country, an extravagant time when hotel dining ruled the roost. “Malaysians, once cosy in their culinary comfort zone, are now culinary daredevils, craving a taste of the world on their plates.”
He thinks this change didn’t just happen in a vacuum but rather was fuelled by a change in mindset and a more refined and demanding audience, giving way to the introduction of more concept-driven eateries. Broadened tastes have also encouraged chefs to experiment with new ideas.
Then, of course, there’s the advent of social media, a platform that Abbi believes has turned the average diner into a well-informed food critic. “Nowadays, a restaurant needs to be more than just a place to eat; it needs to be ‘Instagram-worthy,’ with a compelling story to tell. It’s no longer just about what’s on the plate, but how it’s presented and shared in the digital universe.”
The Group is clearly into the idea of presentation, a defining feature at all of its dining establishments. At Nadodi, where we met Abbi today, the photographs that line the walls are one of the defining features of the space. The framed images, shot by the head honcho of Cinnamon Group himself, present scenes of everyday life that celebrate the beauty and diversity of Sri Lanka.
This fascination with photography dates back to his childhood days growing up in Jaffna. “Owning a camera was beyond our means, an unfulfilled dream amidst the turbulence. This early yearning laid the foundation for my deep appreciation of photography’s power to communicate beyond words,” he says.
Fast forward a few years later in California, and he finally got his hands on a Minolta X700, even though it was just the camera body. “Affording a lens was another hurdle. It took an additional six months of patience and saving before I could complete my camera setup.” But the wait only intensified his passion for photography which he believes is a medium that allows for reflection, connection, and a deeper understanding of the shared human experience.
He’s even published a coffee table book, No Boundaries: Beyond Race, Religion, and Colour—a compendium of photographs of children of all cultures in Sri Lanka playing street cricket, which is another one of Abbi’s interests and a sport he believes has the ability to unite all people.
These days, he says his main focus is finding balance between managing his furniture business, where he’s just launched a retail platform in the US and Canada, and overseeing the day-to-day workings of the Cinnamon Group.
As for the Group’s plans in 2024, it’s all about refining rather than expanding. “We’re taking a steady approach,” he says. “It’s not about being the biggest, but about being the best we can be for our customers.”
Away from work, Abbi has plenty on his hands and enjoys spending time at home with his teenage daughter and two-year-old son. “He thinks he’s Evel Knievel reincarnated. Keeping up with him is like trying to catch a greased pig at a county fair,” he jokes about his youngest.
He may have a lot on his plate, but it’s all part of Abbi’s slice of life, which he likens to a recipe: “It’s a savoury stew of business ventures, a dash of creative flair, and the rollercoaster ride of family life, all simmering together in the pot of the everyday.”
Photography by SC Shekar
Special thanks to Nadodi KL