It won’t be an overstatement to say that New York City tops several bucket lists. It has been on mine since I was first introduced to it through the many sitcoms set in Manhattan. The city is known for a wide variety of things; from its love for all things art to enchanting Broadway performances. But really, no conversation about the Big Apple is complete without a mention of its unparalleled food scene. New York’s constantly evolving restaurants are diverse enough to satiate even the most versatile palettes.
Let’s face it though, sometimes too much variety can get overwhelming. Whether you are a New York native or a tourist trying to check off the best restaurants to dine at on your itinerary, it’s no easy feat to pick from the ever-growing list of choices.
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Lo and behold, Ridhima Kalani — here to save the day! Kalani is the founder of The Scene New York — a one-stop-shop for instant recommendations and reservations in one of the busiest, most happening cities of the world. Brown Girl Magazine had a chance to virtually meet Kalani to talk about her new business venture, the challenges she faced in her entrepreneurial journey, and the ups and downs that come with living and working in New York, the city that changed it all for her.
Before diving in below, it’s worth reading a testimonial from Seema Bansal Chadha, co-founder of Venus Et Fleur, an entrepreneur, who is always on the go, making The Scene a perfect fit for her.
“I have loved the idea of The Scene since Ridhima first told me about it in 2019. It’s been exciting to see it come together and I look forward to using the service. I travel a lot, so I love that for NYC I have this concierge service at my fingertips, which takes all the work out of planning for me and will curate my social life per my preferences and a few simple selections on the website (my vibe, outing type, area, cuisine, etc.) instantly. The cool part about The Scene also is that it takes reservation availability into account for each one of the location recommendations they provide and as users, we can plan experiences on it as many times a day or week as we want.”
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Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us how the idea for The Scene was conceived.
I grew up in India and Singapore. Although I had visited New York a few times growing up, I didn’t really know much about the city or the lifestyle till I came to NYU as a freshman. I started going out with my friends and sorority circle to explore the city and soon made contacts and connections. It’s when I realized I had a knack for planning social events based on the vibe that my friends and I were feeling at the time. For instance, if it was a low-key dinner or a birthday dinner, etc., I had specific spots in mind that would fit the requirement and the connections to get reservations.
“When people I didn’t know began reaching out to me to help them plan their evenings, birthdays, etc., (believe it or not, I would wake up to texts from unknown numbers, literally), I knew this something I should pursue. After a few of my friends suggested I turn my recommendations into a digital service — The Scene was officially born.
I instinctively knew I wanted it to be a digital recommendations service and then all I was left with was figuring out how to bring it to life (the hard part!) — making an app vs. a website, using AI or creating a manual algorithm, etc. There was a huge learning curve there since I do not come from a tech background, but it’s been an interesting journey and definitely worth building bootstrapped.”
New York is such a happening place with a wide variety of things to do that are constantly evolving. How do you keep up and make sure your recommendations are up to date?
The Scene is a platform for restaurants, bars, cafés and clubs mainly in Manhattan. So, that narrows it down from ‘all experiences in NYC.’ From that (still very extensive) list, we pick locations that have been vetted by my team of lifestyle curators or myself. We’ve all lived in the city for years and have been infused in the lifestyle for a long time so it’s easy to vet, re-vet and explore any spots that come up. We then update the algorithm on a daily basis based on our experience. There definitely is a lot to do in the city but what sets The Scene apart is that we only pick the best of these experiences and locations to offer on our platform. To be on The Scene, any venue must meet a certain standard.
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What were some of the challenges you faced when you first started the brand?
I launched The Scene in early 2020 and even now, almost two years later, I would say it still very much feels like the ‘start of the brand.’ I first started promoting The Scene in January 2020 when we hadn’t yet heard about COVID-19, and then by March 2020, we all know what happened.
The onset of the pandemic threw a curveball in the growth of the brand, which essentially promotes socializing through curated experiences in the city. As soon as COVID-19 hit, I was certain that I would no longer be able to promote going out, so our platform became more about ‘at home’ recipes / things to do — whether that was making martinis like Dante (a popular bar/restaurant in the West Village) or spicy rigatoni like Carbone. We also started working on supporting restaurants and helping their funding ventures through the worst of the pandemic.
When people finally started feeling comfortable going out again, we started recommending restaurants that were excellent about their COVID safety measures. This was also when we started private concierge services. The number one thing our members wanted from us, was to know about restaurants that felt safe. So I would say navigating the pandemic was a big challenge for us.
[Read More: Defining Desi: a New Space to Center our Stories in New York City]
Tell us about your experience of being a South Asian woman of color in the world of tech? What has it been like for you?
It’s been a huge learning curve for sure as I do not come from a tech background. But I have thoroughly enjoyed it and have actually come to learn that I love tech. I love working on the back end of things, building websites, learning about different types of artificial intelligence, software, etc.
Working in tech — there’s a lot of satisfaction associated with finding a problem and then being able to fix it yourself — you have the control. Other than that, I have been fortunate enough to receive tremendous support from the community, be it other tech entrepreneurs or really anyone else I turn to for advice. I love how founders and entrepreneurs support one another and while we’re on the topic, a huge shout out to Trisha Sakhuja-Walia, founder of Brown Girl Magazine.
You mentioned that restaurants and places have to meet the set criteria to be featured on The Scene. What are some things you look for in places before you recommend them to users?
Anything that’s recommended on The Scene has been pre-vetted and meets a certain standard. We mostly recommend places that are slightly upscale as well. However, the main component really is what the user is looking for. Once the user selects their preferences, the algorithm curates their recommendations with locations that fit those preferences — whether it be a “lively” “bar” with “good cocktails” or a “low-key” “dinner” offering “Italian” cuisine — the algorithm instantly provides relevant recommendations to the user and also includes reservation time slots for each location based on their timing preference. The Scene is all about personalization and ease. When we are recommending places, the component that matters the most is what the user wants and offering that very thing in a super easy and accessible way.
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What are some of your personal favorite spots in New York that you always go back to?
So many! Kyma Flatiron or Hudson Yards, Paul’s Cocktail Lounge, Lola Taverna, Estiatorio Milos Hudson Yards, Saint Theo’s, Buddha Bar, Little Sister Lounge, Dante McDougal St, Bondst…I could go on, but I think that’s a nice ‘curated’ list.
Can we expect The Scene to enter other major cities in the U.S. as well?
We definitely want to do Miami next. My vision after Miami is more global though; Tel Aviv, Dubai and Singapore.
Any general tips you have for someone visiting New York for the first time?
Well, first and foremost, definitely use The Scene because it’ll give you a selection of the best options based on the exact vibe you’re feeling in the moment. And you won’t have to read through ‘best of’ websites, countless reviews or spend hours on Google searches. Second of all, try and walk around as much as you can. Sometimes you find little hidden treasures everywhere and walking is definitely the best way to explore the city.
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Our community is full of people following their passions and bringing incredible ideas to life. Would you like to share a message with them?
My advice would be to continue following the path that feels instinctively right to you. I also think there’s a lot of people in the community that have their 9 to 5s and follow their passion as their 5 to 9 — that is truly commendable! I recommend doing that but only till it feels right. If and when you are ready to take the leap and go full-time with your passion, just go for it.
Obviously, make sure you have the essential resources you need to make that happen, but after that just explore what feels right. Also, I do feel that some ideas associated with entrepreneurship aren’t particularly healthy for an individual in the long-term. Specifically glorifying working 24×7, not getting any sleep, stress, etc. The message I want to share is that while it can get hectic to be an entrepreneur, it is extremely important to take the time out every day to come back to yourself and focus inward. To have a mental health routine or a self-care routine as an entrepreneur is crucial.
[Read More: 5 of the Best Places to Find Your Favorite Masala Chai in New York City]
Before wrapping up our interview with Kalani, here’s one more testimonial to read by our friends and favorite husband duo, Aditya and Amit, who shared their love with the world when they tied the knot at a Hindu temple in New Jersey in 2019 (read their Brown Girl Magazine interview here).
“Had an amazing date night in the city thanks to The Scene New York. My husband and I struggle with finding places that fit our vibe and taste. It’s such a relief that someone else took time and put in the effort to plan our date night. With The Scene New York, you can truly unwind knowing you are experiencing the best NYC has to offer. We had drinks in a Victorian bar followed by dinner at a pizza spot and I didn’t have to make a single phone call to get reservations. The Scene New York took care of it all. It is truly a one-stop shop for your social life. I am going to use this every time I go into the city and not have FOMO!”
Looking to indulge in the best that New York City has to offer? The Scene NY is your digital tourist guide, giving you easy access to some of the top restaurants and bars in Manhattan. Perfect timing for Galentine’s, Valentine’s Day, or Single’s Awareness Day, Kalani put together a list of recommendations to try on their website, each spot comes with a description of the spot and their vibe as well as COVID-19 updates.
Photo courtesy of Farhat Sikder.