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The Coffee Bar Code

entertainment Updated: Feb 02, 2008 23:11 IST
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The first ‘coffee bar’ Arup Sen visited was at the Siri Fort Sports Complex in south Delhi. This was in 2000; a Calcuttan, he was in Delhi visiting friends at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). It was the year when Barista had just opened shop in the Indian market, making it the first organised coffee bar chain.

“The bar appeared to be non-smoking,” remembers 27-year-old Arup, who’s doing a PhD in television and media studies, and dabbles as an editor with a publishing house when he has spare time. “I asked someone at the counter: Can I smoke here?”

The bar only encourages healthy trends, he was told. Like drinking freshly-brewed coffee. Not smoking cigarettes.

“I didn’t quite get that,” Arup lights a cigarette at the Khan Market Barista. This is one of the rare coffee bars that allow smokers to light up — but only on its tiny balcony that has limited seating. “In Calcutta, I used to hang out at the College Street Coffee House. There, a cigarette was de rigueur, here it was persona non grata.”

Arup’s father Kishore was a Calcutta Coffee House regular too — in the early ’70s. Kishore and his friends would debate the Emergency, Ingmar Bergman and a cricket sensation called Sunil Gavaskar. “Even six years ago, my friends and I discussed Satyajit Ray retrospectives, Sachin Tendulkar and whether free markets is the way forward,” Arup says in between taking drags from a Wills Navy Cut. Over many cups of watered down filter coffee, there were passionate addas on high state. There was also common gossip, he adds — not very intellectual, but what the hell.

“Three days ago, someone made a matter-of-fact Powerpoint presentation to me at a coffee bar in Connaught Place where I couldn’t smoke — that’s how much coffee culture has changed.”

These days, whenever Arup — who moved to Delhi in 2004 to pursue his MPhil — goes to Calcutta, his friends want to meet him at coffee bars on high streets and posh multiplexes. His father asked him why anyone would want to pay Rs 50 for a cup of coffee at a Barista or a Café Coffee Day. “I offered to take him to a coffee bar — there’s one next to where my parents live. He said he’d much rather go to a regular bar. ‘What on earth is a coffee bar?’ he wanted to know.”

Arup told him it’s a concept modelled on ‘Italian’ lines. India is going to the dogs, Kishore countered over a strong cup of Nescafé that the maid got for him.

Intellectual capital

Gauri Shankar Nanda, owner of the Madras Coffee House in Delhi’s Connaught Place (where a few scenes of the Naxalite Movement-laced Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi had been shot), would have loved to hear that. “Earlier, the city’s intelligentsia would debate here, mull over the day’s happenings — all that’s changed with the standardised yuppie coffee joints taking over,” says 48-year-old Nanda wistfully. “The coffee culture that was a part of the old era is now lost.”

But Nanda probably knows that he’s in a minority. Here are a few figures. Virag Joshi, president and CEO, Costa Coffee India, claims that coffee chains in India are expected to grow in a big way — at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30 per cent over the next couple of years. Currently, India has around 1,200 coffee bars — this number will touch 2,500 by 2010-11. “Coffee bars in the country do business worth Rs 500-Rs 600 crore and this should triple in the next five years,” Joshi points out.

No one’s talking about profits — yet: overheads (rentals, electricity, personnel costs etc) are very high, but it’s a long-term investment, say the coffee bar chains. Indians are now drinking more coffee than ever before: daily per capita consumption has touched 1.8 cups. Americans are drinking less: it’s down to below 2 cups daily, from more than 4.

The coffee drinking boom has begun in right earnest. Here and now. Café Coffee Day consumer research says that 18 per cent of their customers visit them daily; 44 per cent visit once every week.

Clearly, it’s time to capitalise.

Experiencing the change

Ask an economist about the coffee bar culture, and he (or she) will say it’s the state of the nation: the globalisation process and the rise in disposable incomes. Our health experts will probably say it’s indicative of the preferred health of the nation: sanitised and non-smoking.

The average New Indian will say it’s about being aspirational. Last year, New Orleans-based banker Sajid, 31, met software developer Ayesha, 28, at a coffee bar in Hyderabad. The purpose was to explore matrimonial potential; their families had “set them up”. “Ayesha told me, ‘Let’s CCD,’” Sajid laughs. “She meant let’s catch up at Café Coffee Day.” He’s getting married to Ayesha in May this year. “Even in the US, we don’t say ‘Let’s Starbucks.’”

Rini Dutta, VP (marketing and product development), Barista, talks about the ‘bar’ comforts of being aspirational: “It’s a place I feel comfortable in — the signage is warm, one can see the store from outside, it feels safe…Women sit alone at tables... The smell of coffee, the free-flowing conversations, the Wi-Fi access, the light music, the foreign tourists sitting at the table next to yours — it’s all very cool, and very global.”

It’s also about a different work culture — one that’s experiential. Uday Das, a barista (a coffee ‘bartender’) at the CP Barista, does stuff like drawing out sunshine smileys with milk froth over a steaming cup of cappuccino. Or writing out the guest’s name. Or even a good morning message to start a day on a cheerful note. The coffee bar experience is all about “caring, right attitude and good service”. So if someone drops by in “a bad mood, a bad day at work or a break-up”, his duty is “to make them comfortable: if they want a particular seat, a particular coffee, I get it for them. And I give them space,” says 28-year-old Uday.

Back to the coffee bar

Arup Sen, in case you were wondering, is my cousin’s friend. He met me at the Khan Market Barista to use me as a sounding board. “I have a job interview next week — if I get the job, I want to take a break from my PhD.” Sitting in the Coffee House on College Street or even at JNU — where many Left-leaning students were aghast when a Nescafé (read: multinational) vending machine was installed a few years ago — he wanted to change the world.

“Now, I want to be part of the change that India is witnessing — you know, the globalisation and all that,” he says.

Will your job interview be in a coffee bar, I ask him.

He doesn’t know. But it could be: his potential employer is the same guy who made a Powerpoint presentation to him at the Barista in CP three days ago.

Barista’s Rini Dutta says that conducting job interviews at coffee bars is very hot — and the interview can go on for more than an hour.

But here’s how you can tell if you’re not getting the job: the interview only lasts as long as it takes for you to finish your cup of coffee.

sushmitabose@hindustantimes.com
(Inputs by Namita Kohli and Paramita Ghosh)