Culture in India
Apna Coffee House, Mera Coffee Bar
By Aparna Datta
Coffee has a certain buzz. And that buzz is at its loudest
in an unique social environment: the café.
Throughout history, across continents, coffee bars have been
places to talk and time pass, romance and revolutionize. Interestingly,
these retail outlets seem to reinvent themselves in every
age, in every culture, creating a distinct café society.
India, too, has its own special café culture, spanning
some three generations, with traditional and contemporary
India Coffee House – an institution
The golden age of the coffee house in India belongs undeniably
to the India Coffee House, which had its hey day from the
1940s through the 1970s. Subsequently, the younger generation
in India took to colas and soft drinks in a big way, and the
India Coffee House chain operated by the Coffee Board was
gradually downsized to rationalize costs.
For a certain age cohort, though – that generation
swept up in the political maelstrom of pre-Independent India
and through to the revolutionary sixties – the India
Coffee House with its liveried waiters brings back nostalgic
memories of the salad days of one’s youth.
The first India Coffee House opened on Churchgate Street
in Bombay on 28th September 1936. Much like the coffee houses
of Europe, the India Coffee House quickly became a rendezvous
for the intellectual and the dilettante alike. But the outlets
themselves were part of a larger strategy to promote coffee
consumption in India, which for a long while was termed “coffee
propaganda”. At the height of its glory, the India Coffee
House chain numbered 72 outlets, and essentially introduced
the coffee habit in the tea-drinking north of the country.
Coffee bars – the contemporary scene
A fresh new aroma wafted in during the 1990s, with a whole
new trend in coffee retailing in India. Coffee bars today
capture the spirit of the age, not only because of the customer
profile, but also in terms of the entrepreneurial flair that
is demonstrably on show.
The specialty coffee movement has gained much of its momentum
through the efforts of Starbucks Coffee Company, which from
its home-base in Seattle has expanded to some 5,400 stores
around the world by 2002, and Peet’s Coffee & Tea,
based in Berkeley, California. Together these two chains,
both from the West Coast of the USA, have become the model
for the contemporary coffee shop and have inspired entrepreneurs
around the globe. Strongly influenced by the Italian espresso
bar, the café latte culture has become a rage in Silicon
Is it any wonder, then, that in India, the trail of the reinvented
coffee shop should start in Bangalore, the IT Capital and
the Coffee Capital?
The Café Coffee Day on Brigade Road, Bangalore serves
some fine coffees and happens to be the first ‘cybercafe’
in the country. This particular outlet is where the contemporary
trend in coffee-pubbing started, and it now has a special
place in the history of coffee retailing in India.
When the Amalgamated Bean Coffee Trading Co. (ABC) launched
the first Café Coffee day outlet in November 1996,
it truly was a leap of faith. It was early days for the Internet
in India; and ‘coffee shops’ were either of the
five-star hotel or dhaba variety. But ABC, as one of India’s
leading exporters of coffee, were clued into the international
scene and saw a business opportunity in fusing two distinct
trends – the cyber craze and the yen for gourmet coffee
– and the concept of an independent, stand-alone coffee
joint, rather, cybercafe, was born.
Since 1996, when Café Coffee day was the first commercial
Internet service provider in India, the scene has evolved
significantly, and the rapid increase in home Internet connections
has meant a decline in the ‘cyber’ revenue stream.
Happily, ABC discovered that it was good coffee that got people
to come back for more, and decided to concentrate on the ‘café’
end of the business. By March 2003, the company had some 85
outlets all over the country, with more on the anvil.
To two software engineers from Silicon Valley, USA the word
‘java’ was naturally laden with meaning! Inspired
by the specialty coffee bar scene in the US, Shashi Chimala
and Shyam set up Qwiky’s Corporation with a vision to
set up coffee pubs around the globe, and homed in on Chennai
to establish the first Qwiky’s Coffee Pub in October
1999. Managed by Chimayo Chains, the company operates outlets
in three formats – Qwiky’s Coffee Pubs which are
stand-alone coffee bars, Qwiky’s Coffee Islands which
are store-in-store units within large stores, movie theatres
and multiplexes, and Qwiky’s Coffee Xpress, which are
essentially coffee kiosks.
As coffee goes upmarket, the Indian consumer is learning
a whole new language and lifestyle. And Barista looms large
on the horizon!
The word ‘Barista’ means ‘a bartender /
expert in the brewing and making of coffee’, and is
Italian in origin. It’s also the name for a chain of
espresso bars that are being set up at a scorching pace in
Indian metros and mini-metros. The first outlet came up in
March 2000 in New Delhi; currently, the company operates 110
espresso bars in 18 urban centres. The number of Barista outlets
is slated to reach 250 by March 2003 in 25 cities –
that’s a lot of coffee swirling around! In July 2001,
Tata Coffee Limited acquired a stake in Barista Coffee Company
– together these companies represent a formidable presence
in the retail coffee segment, including institutional catering.
With a national presence, all these contemporary coffee chains
have one thing in common – they all unabashedly go for
young throats! The outlets are designed for young people in
the age group of 15 – 29 to hang out – preferably
for hours, no sweat. With air-conditioning and music, message
boards full of wise-cracks, indoor games such as chess, scrabble
and Pictionary, these pubs are virtually an extension of the
college canteen, but thoroughly upscale versions.
What’s happening here? What we’re witnessing
is the evolution of a coffee house that served one standard
house blend to a trendy bar that serves a variety of beverages
and snacks. The espresso counter is a focal element, with
the full range of gourmet coffees on order. Urban youth of
every new generation always tend to stake out a certain public
space as their own; certainly the coffee pubs in the Indian
metros are the social milieu where the bold and the beautiful
get together today. Further, an Indian twist – the accent
is on conviviality, on group activity – way different
from the coffee pubs in the western world which are designed
for the individual wanting a quick, quiet cuppa.
For young people these days, chilling out at a coffee pub
is more of a lifestyle thing, and has more “added value”
than simply sipping a cola or a lemon drink. The contemporary
coffee bar scene in India today spells non-stop excitement!
As each chain expands, each new store opening becomes a frothy
celebration of India’s own brand of coffee culture.
© Aparna Datta, 2003