A DJ’s transformative journey to a restaurateur - Harpo
Starting off as one of Sri Lanka’s pioneering DJs who could keep the crowd going with back to back toe-tappers, Harpo has established an impressive portfolio of Colombo’s most loved dining establishments.
Lalith Gooneratne AKA Harpo has been in this industry for 40 years. His career is nearly as colorful as his personality, starting off as one of Sri Lanka’s pioneering DJs who could keep the crowd going with back to back toe-tappers, Harpo has since established an impressive portfolio of Colombo’s most loved dining establishments. He is also a firm believer in the potential of the youth of this country, especially when it comes to the hospitality industry.
Take us back to the beginnings of DJ Harpo.
While I was studying at hotel school, I needed some extra cash. One of my friends suggested becoming a DJ. I remember taking the bus from Fort all the way to Aluthgama. I would spin records at all the hotel bars down south from Wednesday through to Saturday. Tourism was at its peak at the time and the guests really enjoyed the vibe. Eventually, I became an essential element of the mobile discos that Colombo saw at the time. This is something that has stayed with me right through out, no matter how I have grown, I will always be DJ Harpo.
Can you reflect on your first entry into the industry?
After I finished off my formal hotel school education, I was given an opportunity to become the entertainment manager for the Ramada Rennaissance which is now the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel. During this time, there were some serious problems in the country, but we were able to work through all of this by keeping the spirits alive. Thereafter, I was head hunted by the Hilton and enjoyed a few international stints which all together lasted 25 years.
When did you decide to setup your own business? 2004 was the year I decided to move on and set up something
for myself. I initially setup a management company that would take care of all the headaches that would arise when running a restaurant. Some of our clients decided that they wanted to sell their businesses, so my business partner and I jumped at the chance to buy them. It stated with The Commons Coffee House and soon after we acquired The Bayleaf and we kept moving forward from then on.
Do you have a favorite property from the lot?
Personally, I really like The Bayleaf. It is an old house that has an easy-going rustic charm which can easily turn any customer into a repeat guest. However, all of our properties have their own persona. The Commons is always buzzing with many students, the Colombo Fort Café has a unique open kitchen, and of course the Curve is placed within a nightlife hotspot; The Park Street Mews. The unifying factor of all my properties is that people may come as they are, we do not like to fuss about dress codes and such, we want our guests to have a comfortable experience.
Can we expect to see more restaurants opening up under your belt?
I do not have plans of expanding my restaurant business as I am quite happy with what we have so far. However, I have expanded my brand into other areas such as the retail sector. Our pasta sauces and frozen pizzas have become a hit amongst the general public as they are readily available in supermarkets. The brand as a whole is diversifying through this process.
Tell us about your hotel school and why you feel it is an important additio.
My school is located in the south of Sri Lanka and has been operational for the last 8 years. I strongly feel that a proper education in this discipline will be extremely important for all interested youth. As the government is currently putting a firm focus on attracting tourists in order to further enhance this revenue stream, a proper hotel school is vital. In order for us to step up our game and be on par with international standards, we need to have the right talent. In terms of future developments, we are currently in the process of tying up with a hotel school overseas in order to further add value to the education which our students receive
What advice do you have for aspiring restaurateurs?
This is a very hands-on business. You’ve got to deal with long hours of working with people. Either you love working in this trade or you don’t, that is the simplest way to put it. This something that anyone who wants to get into this trade should know. Everybody thinks that it is a lovely job but in reality, you are on your feet 24/7, all year round.