India's coffee war brews

Late afternoon in Kolkata and the light slants across the crowded tables of the College Street Coffee House. Waiters in grubby white suits deliver limp omelettes and piles of biryani. The manager, Deepak Gupta, is proud of the range of coffee he offersblack, white, cold or hot, all for eight rupees (R1.30).

“We serve up to 1 500 cups a day. Business is good,” he says.

The coffee house is owned by a co-operative founded in the full flush of 1950s Indian socialism to guarantee cheap food, drink and a meeting place for workers, intellectuals and political activists alike. Some outlets are thriving but others are in trouble, victims of the radical changes in Indian society in recent decades.

In Kerala, the heart of Indian coffee-drinking country, 15 of 50 branches are losing money. In Delhi, the capital, 10 coffee houses have shut. The most venerable of all, the Indian Coffee House, has not paid its rent for years and is waiting for the municipal axe to fall. “The younger crowd seems to go elsewhere,” says the manager, Janak Raj.

Sitting at a stained table, oblivious to the acrid fumes from the toilets, Ram Shashtri, a patron for 40 years, lists the luminaries who were once patrons. “Every prime minister from Jawaharlal Nehru to Atal Bihari Vajpayee [in the late 1990s] came here. This place is part of the country’s history. It must not close,” he says.

A hundred metres away, Rukeen, Sima and Geetika, 18-year-old political science students, are sitting in a branch of Café Coffee Day, which boasts of being India’s largest chain and “where the young at heart unwind”. It has air conditioning, mirrors, comfy chairs and posters. The trio like choco-frappes at 95 rupees and say they have never heard of the Indian Coffee House.

The battle for customers is at the heart of India’s coffee culture wars. But the conflict is more complicated than a face-off between the globalised “new India” of consumerist middle classes, so heavily projected overseas, and a crumbling—if colourful—old India.

Sima and her friends have not picked Café Coffee Day by chance. “McDonald’s is the cheapest hangout and everyone can go there. This is much nicer and only a bit more expensive so we come here. But only a few people can go to Barista’s,” she says.

Barista, a chain that opened 10 years ago and now has 230 outlets, with 65 more planned for this year, offers not just coffee but “an overall experience”, says Vishal Kapoor, head of marketing. “It’s very exciting what is happening in India. The classic coffee houses are part of an era that is ending.”

Set back off Kolkata’s upmarket Camac Street is one of Barista’s premier “creme” cafés, where salads and smoothies supplement the “mocha tease”, “cappuccino cookie and cream” and 1990s Britpop soundtracks. Sharing a sofa are Ramit, a 25-year-old share trader, and Ruchika (26). “It is a kind of private space,” says Ruchika, who works at one of the banks nearby. “My parents are a bit conservative so don’t really want me to hang around with a boyfriend. We can meet here.”

But those who can afford to visit the new outlets are a minuscule minority of even the relatively wealthy. “We are just scratching the surface,” says Kapoor. A new India may have emerged over recent years, but a lot of the old India remains—which to an extent explains why the Kolkata coffee house is so full.—

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