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How a thirst for good coffee has transformed the city’s cafes


How a thirst for good coffee has transformed the city’s cafes

Some like it hot, while some like it standing up. A group of Lalbagh walkers prefer both at one go. Every morning they gulp down their filter coffees without too long apause in their daily constitutional. “They come to MTR, drink their coffee stand-Mg and run off. It’s quite funny,” laughs writer and coffee chronicler Aparna Datta. Elsewhere, especially on food blogs, paeans are sung about the joy of downing double shots of espresso on a breezy afternoon.

Bengaluru has a brew for everyone but age and migration seem to determine the choice of beverage. More often, it is the young and the restless newcomer who seems to be sipping lattes in eerily similar looking modern cafes while the older residents stick to Ko-shy’s, MTR, Brahmins, Vidyarthi Bhavan and other nostalgia-filled haunts of old Bengaluru.

It is this mixture of old and new, propelled by migration, that has repeatedly redefined the city’s vibrant café culture since the 16th century.

Coffee came to Konkan and Malabar coasts from Yemen in 16th century. The early British arrivals noticed that locals boiled a black seed and preferred to drink this dark ‘coffee’ liquid than wine, writes Datta quoting colonial accounts. Once the coffee wave reached Europe, the East India Company opened coffee houses in Calcutta and Madras for its officers. It also smelt a great business opportunity in cultivating the beans in the pleasant Western Ghats and bought huge tracts of land dirtcheap. “Our family used to cultivate paddy, arecanut and cardamom. Then one of the British planters near-by told my great grandfather that he shotild also grow coffee and that’s how my family got into coffee plantation in 1870,” recalls V G Siddhartha, chairman of Amalgamated Bean Coffee Trading Company, which owns Bengaluru’s homegrown Café Coffee Day chain that completes 20 years on July 11. This is true of most Indian planters who copied their British counterparts and started commercial coffee cultivation for export.

Most households continued to drink tea but some beans eventually found their way to elite clubs, roadside stalls and Tamil homes, says Datta. When export blockades came up in the 1900s, domestic consumption was encouraged. Even then, it was revolutionary of Mavalli Tiffin Room or MTR to offer coffee outside homes in 1924. “In those days, you had very little eating out, especially among the upper castes,” says Datta, editor of ‘The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee’.

Indian Coffee House (ICH), the earlier avatar of Coffee Board, took the MTR experiment to the next level. “They started the first coffee house in Mumbai in 1936 and later, in other parts of India that drank only tea,” says Datta. They served quick eats unlike in a European cafe but the culture around ICH out-lets was deeply political, especially in Lucknow and Delhi. By the time ICH opened on MG Road, in 1959, another home brand had created loyalists for its `Koshy’s Koffee’ to the accompaniment of languid conversations or heated discussions. Koshy’s or Parade Café also spawned similar out-lets like Thom’s Café and Fatima Café and Caterers.

“We were one of the first places with a jukebox,” recalls VT BIG PICTURE Pies. Sved Aslf A CITY BINGEING ON COFFEE: (Clockwise from top) With wifi and decorated interiors, Coffee Day remains a favourite of the city’s youth; The first Coffee Day outlet opened on Brigade Road in 1996 as a Coffee Day Cyber Cafe; Old-timers continue to haunt establishments like Koshy’s; Retaining traditional roots in a swiftly changing cultural landscape, Kalmane Koffees serves many traditional brews Francis, son of Fatima Café founder VP Thomas. Collegians of a certain vintage remember heading to these places to spend whatever little money they had on jukeboxes and catching the eyes of young women collegians in the 60s and 70s. For the Anglo-Indian community around these cafes, Sunday ritual consisted of going for mass and a South Indian breakfast with coffee.

But the winds of change came soon enough: “It was migration and television. This need for burgers and cold coffee came from TV,” shrugs Francis. While increasing western influence brought in the pub culture in the 1980s, a new wave of migrants in the 19q0s changed traffic and residential patterns. Once the Anglo-Indian community moved out to far-flung suburbs, Fatima Café became a restaurant and bar, and now a hotel.

“Cafes need to be in a really quiet area where you can sit and talk, or a crowded area with foot-falls,” says Francis. It is this formula, coupled with desi adaptation of American Starbucks chain that aided the successful entry of Café Coffee Day (CCD) and similar city chains like Java City and Kalmane Koffees.

It also helped that by the 1990s the software sector had placed close to 30,000 new residents in Bengaluru to work in MNCs like IBM, Compaq and Infosys. To CCD’s Siddhartha, it looked like the best time to open a café that offered the city’s first cappuccino on Brigade Road in 1996. “We got 15 IBM computers with 17-inch monitors, and a La Cimbali espresso machine for Rs 7 lakh from Italy” says Siddhartha.

Next to the latest gizmos in nifty interiors, there was no space for juggling arms pouring coffee from steel vessels to tumblers. Filter coffees were set aside for lattes, espressos, air conditioning and trained English-speaking staff. “We didn’t want to spoil the look. All things put together, it was a concept store,” says Siddhartha.

The image was one of aspirational urban India. “This new wave was an import but CCD quickly evolved a café bar concept. That superseded ICH,” says Datta. CCD also managed to stay ahead of Indian competitors like Delhi-based Barista because as part of Amalgamated that owns the entire value chain – from plantation to retail it could afford huge investments. “The other chains don’t have the same backend. The whole economics of café is about location and property. Starbucks gets that and CCD too understood it when it came to expanding,” says Datta.

While Barista got mired in ownership issues, Java City changed hands and .shrank to one outlet due to high overheads in the city. Kalmane, which is from a plantation company and one of the rare places to serve Indian varieties like Mysore Nuggets, started in 2004 and now has four outlets.

CCD has weathered the last great churning – the arrival of Starbucks in 2011 and other MNC chains like Costa Coffee, Gloria Jeans and Coffee Bean. Siddhartha is optimistic about room for growth after having opened around 1,600 outlets in 219 cities in India, a few abroad, and experimented with different formats for highways, malls and small towns. Apart from an app, he’s planning a variety of fresh-ly assembled food and wifi to ensure that patrons continue to stay for a minimum of an hour and a half, so that they can read, propose marriage, conduct business meetings or start companies. “The other day Bhavesh (Aggarwal of 01a) told me that he spent one year at our Powai (Mumbai) outlet, working there every day. He was afraid that one day the Manager would throw him out,” laughs Siddhartha.

The numbers say there is room to grow. From 30,000 mi-grants in 1997, there are now 1.2 million in Bengaluru. “Those who come to big cities for opportunities stay alone. Many of them want to sit at a café and work as it energises you,” he says. How far this optimism will sustain this successful Indian brand remains to be seen. But there is no doubt about the need for a daily caffeine fix, whether at MTR or startup hangout Costa in Koramangala. “Tea hasn’t got that reverence. Coffee is still fashionable,” says Datta.

Source: TOI

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