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When coffee meets masala chai

india Updated: Dec 12, 2010 22:09 IST
Manoj Tadepalli

Ever wondered why so many coffee shops have sprung up? Is it that Indian city dwellers have suddenly developed a taste for not only ordinary coffee but exotic varieties and flavours that only a "barista" can put together? The success of coffee shops on every self-respecting street corner has made them the most impressive transplants, far outstripping other implants such as pizza and burger outlets (which have in any case been Indianised with alu tikki and chicken tikka).

This sudden love for coffee needs closer examination. About five years ago, some Indian entrepreneurs borrowed the Starbucks idea and put together stores of a similar format. Some coffee impresarios found in this a trend where those who matter in consumer India would start on the journey to becoming coffee connoisseurs. Many impressive bottles with coloured liquids beckoned in smart little cafés. The sofas were comfortable, the atmosphere eclectic and youthful but most importantly, we had our very own coffee experience!

So, what exactly is the role of coffee in all of this? Are we, after a considerable experience with the 'coffee experience', now coffee experts? The evidence that I have after many coffee shop interactions points the other way. After having tried a few exotic flavors, most people have settled for two basic variants: 'hot' and 'cold'. Too few takers for Brazilian pecan or whatever, I'm afraid.

Then why are we seeing more coffee shops in what was traditionally 'chai' country? The answer is that probably more than a Facebook or an Orkut, cafés are the most successful social networking sites. Who does one meet at these cafés? Take away the students and loiterers, most of the meetings happen between acquaintances that you are catching up with. Just like Facebook and LinkedIn, it is a great place to keep in touch once in a while and go our separate ways.

The advantages are obvious: it is neutral territory, costs only 150 bucks or so, is generally a pleasant place and no bother to anyone. So, is this the real purpose of the famous Starbucks as well? Come to think of it, it probably is. Coffee is only a bit player. It is actually a business built around people meeting people.

The Coffee Day baseline may as well read "A lot can happen when you meet" (excuse the poor copy, you get the point!). Coffee has become hip in the bargain, brilliant for coffee sales.

In a country like ours, without much of a coffee drinking tradition (except in the south), this is amazing.

This brings me to an idea. Pizza players struggled till they found the right flavours by rediscovering tandoori chicken and do piyazza. As pizza restaurants are visited by people who come to eat, they had no choice but to bring them in line with Indian taste buds. Taking a cue from this, can coffee bars become better by catering to the Indian palate rather than slavishly follow the western format and selling doughnuts and cookies? Better still, will we see tea bars come up and actually deliver the same thing (a nice, hip meeting place) and wean away customers by offering great Indian tea flavors along with bhajjiyas? If this offer was available, I would be the first to say, " Elaichi chai, anyone?"

The writer is CEO and director, Rainman Consulting