Smell the COFFEE

Published: October 1, 2009 - 12:11 Updated: July 27, 2015 - 15:50

For new-age cafés, it's big business. Unlike the dying coffee houses of yore, these swanky joints are a different cup of coffee

Sumiran Preet Kaur Delhi

The story of the coffee homes reflects the ever-changing socio-economic dynamics of India.
Ram Shastri, a journalist, has been coming to the Indian Coffee House at Mohan Singh Place in Delhi for the past 30 years. From the open terrace of this café in Connaught Place (CP), he has seen Delhi's skyline change. New, fancy restaurants have come up and swanky cars are all over. Another café regular says, "Earlier, I used to catch the first shuttle tempo (phutphatia) from my office at Shastri Bhawan to come here." He still comes here every evening.

Here in the café, time stands still - torn seats, the muggy lobby, familiar faces. A turbanned waiter in dull white uniform serves the coffee. He, too, seems a relic of the past. The only change, a minor one, is in the price of the coffee: from 75 paisa about 30 years ago, it has climbed to Rs 10.
Shastri and others have grown old with the coffee house. But that is threatened to be disrupted now. Anytime this year, the café could close down following a court ruling. To stall that, the café regulars, most of them above 50, decided to form the Coffee Consumers' Forum.

Thinking man's haunt
The history of this café can be traced back to 1957. A decade after Independence, retrenched Class IV employees of the Coffee Board started the café. It is run by The Indian Coffee Workers' Cooperative Society (a workers' union) which was founded during the price-rise resistance movement in Delhi. They had decided to run the coffee house on a no-profit-no-loss-basis. It originally existed in the Theatre Communication building, where today's Palika Bazaar has come up.

Continuing with tradition, the café still hosts dialogues and reading sessions with writers, poets and artists. It was common to hear people get up and recite poems. Nobody was a stranger here. Anybody could join any group or sit solitary nursing a cup of coffee. Civil society and human rights groups would hold meetings. This was a place to fix future appointments, plan a spontaneous resistance, write a letter, conceive a poster/hoarding/wall paper, exchange/read a book, meet friends and foes.

Gossip was a ritual. If you had your ear to the ground, you could catch news breaking in those radio days. One day in the mid-1970s, somebody leaked that emergency was about to be clamped down. This was bad news. The emergency saw fundamental rights crushed. The original coffee house at CP, where there was unbridled freedom of expression, was bulldozed in 1976 by Sanjay Gandhi. After emergency, it got a new lease of life. The NDMC helped it shift to its current address at Mohan Singh Place, behind Regal cinema, next to Rivoli, in CP.Shastri recalls: "It wasn't just about coffee. It was a home away from home. We sat till the lights were switched off," he tells Hardnews.

Winds of change
The 1990s saw liberalisation of the Indian economy. Private players brought in snazzier options. Around 1995, year-long renovation work by the NDMC added to the woes of the coffee house. Its sales dipped rapidly. To balance the losses, the management pumped in funds at its other branches at Kamala Nagar and Badarpur in Delhi. The café also has branches in Shimla, Chandigarh, Dharamsala, Ludhiana, Jaipur and Allahabad. The Shimla coffee house at the Mall, for instance, is always jam-packed.

In 2008, the Kamala Nagar branch in Delhi downed shutters due to sealing. In 2009, NDMC refused to extend the lease at Mohan Singh Place and asked them to vacate the place in June 2009. The court ruling on September 8 also asked them to vacate the premises. Now, the coffee house management claims there's no choice but to close down. "With a monthly expenditure of Rs 60,000, we cannot afford to run this place. We also have to pay our staff and run the kitchen," says CS Baiju, secretary of the cooperative.

The café is gasping for breath. Coffee vans of the Coffee Board of India that served steaming cups at CP and ITO have disappeared. Now, the board runs only four coffee depots in Delhi. Just across the road from the Indian Coffee House, there is the Coffee Home run by Delhi Tourism at Kharag Singh Marg. It still sells coffee at Rs 10. The official in charge of this café, on condition of anonymity, tells Hardnews, "It's a matter of time before this garden restaurant-cum café shuts down. People come here early in the morning, grab seats, keep talking for hours and order nothing. This is a no-profit place."

It's not just the lack of profit and business, these old cafés in Delhi are also threatened by land sharks since they are located on prime property in the heart of Lutyens' Delhi. The odds are skewed against them.

In a new avatar
For coffee though, the scene is not all that grim. The simple cup of coffee, or kuppa as it is known in south India, is now a measure of your cool quotient. It's now über cool for students and professionals to hang out in new-age, affluent cafés.

The snacks accompanying coffee have changed from the earlier idli-sambhar to pasta and desserts. It's not just crushed chicory anymore. Now there is a wide range to choose from. You can have a cappuccino, a latte or a frappe. You could also ask for Italian or Arabic coffee.

VG Siddhartha's family is in the business of growing and exporting powdered coffee for 139 years now. During one of his foreign trips, Siddhartha came across beer bars doubling up as Internet parlours. He wanted to replicate a similar model in India with coffee at its core. So, in 1996, he opened the first new-age cafe in Bangalore. This was the precursor to the Café Coffee Day (CCD) chain. By 2000, Barista came in with its cosmopolitan café chain.

Even foreign players like Costa Coffee made forays in the Indian market. Italian Lavazza came in 2007 through the acquisition of Barista Coffee Company Limited. According to a spokesperson of Lavazza, Italy, "Today, people have disposable incomes to spend on food and they are hanging out more often. This has given rise to a contemporary café culture. India is a potential market."

Now big players like CCD, Barista Lavazza and Costa Coffee are venturing out of the metros and setting up cafés in cities like Jaipur, Agra and Chandigarh.
With coffee and delectable bites, these cafés offer customers a comfortable seating, prompt service and stylish store design. They keep changing the look and feel of their stores along with the menu to keep up with changing taste. What's more, complements to coffee - music, art, books and even wi-fi connectivity - are on offer.

It's big business
The new-age cafés or coffee bars have got their economics right. They are marketing, selling and brewing a brand. They "sell" the "concept" of coffee. "The USP is 'chill out while you eat," says Santosh Unnikrishnan, CEO, Costa Coffee India, a UK-based café chain. So, how does he see the coffee culture evolving in India? "India has always had a strong coffee culture like the famous filter coffee down south. What has changed is the marketing, branding and packaging of coffee. Now you get high quality coffee, freshly ground from beans in front of you in hygienic conditions. Along with the coffee, you also have a place to unwind," he says.

So, it is old wine in a new bottle. Most of the companies including the Indian Coffee House get their beans from Chikmagalur in Karnataka. But, companies say that the blending and roasting gives each brand its uniqueness. It's the blend that makes the difference.

According to Alok Gupta, director of Café Coffee Day, "India's young and the young-at-heart are exposed to global culture through the media and popular sitcoms like Friends where the café is an integral part of people's lives. The media, too, have made the world a smaller place. So, the need of a young man or woman in Florida is not much different from his/her counterparts in any Indian city," he points out.

For new-age cafés, it's an outright business proposition. Unlike in the coffee houses of yore, here you don't have the luxury of sitting for hours without ordering anything. As soon as you have polished off the last crumbs of a brownie and finished the coffee, a waiter will politely ask, "Anything else, please?" That's the signal: he is telling you to get up and leave, if you are done.

Pricing in these cafés are not uniform either. It is driven by the socio-economic profile of the area it is located in - rent, location and saleability. For instance, a cappuccino costs Rs 49 in Barista Connaught Place while you have to shell out Rs 84 for the same in the chain's posh Khan Market outlet - one of the most upscale markets in the world. All the café chains admit doing it.
According to a Barista spokesperson, "We have divided our cafés into two categories or formats. The outlet at CP is a regular espresso format while the one in Khan Market is the Barista Crème format. The latter has a kitchen attached to it to prepare fresh food. Hence, prices vary."

Though the coffee experience in these cafés comes at a high price, they are usually choc-a-bloc with customers. "With time, preferences and taste of people change. Earlier people wanted an Ambassador for a car. Now, they aspire for swanky, comfortable cars. And, we give them what they are looking for," points out Unnikrishnan.

Customers shell out Rs 100 for a cup of coffee while meeting friends, business associates or spending time with a fiancé. For the daily dose of affordable coffee in Delhi, you can still go to old coffee joints like Depauls at Janpath who brought in the concept of bottled coffee. Its cold coffee priced at Rs 25 is popular among the young and the old.

It is unlikely that this coffee culture will fade away since the new cafes are trying to make their presence felt in various cities and small towns.  The cafes are full of youngsters, considering that the target of the cafes is Gen X. "The food here is good and so is the ambience. We have a lot to choose from and we do not get such stuff to munch at home," says Prabhsharan Arora, senior Marketing Manager, Planet X. It is also a place with professional nomads go with their laptops.

Barista managers suggests that with increasing income and the rising tendency to spend within the affluent urban society, their have been an unprecedented growth in the trend of "out of the home segment eating and drinking". Barista is now planning to open high-end liquor bars in select places, beginning with posh Khan Market.

No wonder, the new concept is a big hit among the rich and upwardly mobile, especially the young. Indeed, Cafe Coffee Day boasts of 65 per cent of India's Rs 400 crore 'coffee bar market' with its 800 outlets, while Barista commands 25 percent with 230 outlets across the country.

Swan song?
So, why do people still go to the musty coffee house behind Regal? Says Shastri:  "The new cafes are doing well. But can they inspire an intellectual environment? Wo jazbaa nahi hai (The passion is no longer there)."

The forum led by Shastri wants the government to declare the Indian Coffee House a heritage site and allow it to run. However, by the time you read this, it's possible that it might have served its last cup of watery coffee. A legacy would have ended. Or will the Coffee Consumers' Forum fight a last-ditch battle for victory? 

For new-age cafés, it’s big business. Unlike the dying coffee houses of yore, these swanky joints are a different cup of coffee Sumiran Preet Kaur Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews