One of the most attractive features of my days in the US was ‘Starbucks’ – its world-class coffee and, more importantly, its relaxing atmosphere to hang out. We didn’t have any formidable coffee-shop culture in India at that time, in general. Yes, I am from a country with enriched heritage of ‘tea’ and ‘chai’, and of course I grew up in the city of the ‘Coffee House’.
Manna Dey’s immortal song on Coffee House is blended with my boyhood nostalgia. But, an iconic single Coffee House, or even a few more in the city, is a completely different culture from what I experienced in the outlets of Starbucks.
People hang out there for relaxation, leisure, negotiations, business, studies, projects – and often alone with a laptop and study notes, and newspapers. All over a cup of excellent coffee, sometimes with a second cup, often accompanied by some light snacks. I enjoyed it a lot, in all the Starbucks outlets, even outside the US. For example, while visiting the London School of Economics, about two decades ago, I remember that my lunch used to cost less than £5 at the University cafeteria. But, thereafter, I used to spend an hour or more at the next-door Starbucks outlet with a cup of coffee at £6.50!
On the eve of the twenty-first century, India possibly desperately needed its own brand of coffee-shops. And there came VG Siddhartha who had a family business of coffee plantations, and was inspired by the autobiography of Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, the global ‘Coffee King’. In the age of internet and satellite television, and with an ever-expanding Indian economy, there was certainly a tremendous hidden aspiration within the middle class and society as a whole, and Siddhartha was very efficient to create a truly Indian brand to become the Indian ‘Coffee King’ by captalising on those aspirations. And, in the process, he could possibly create the Indian version of Starbucks. Of course, Starbucks with nearly 28,000 outlets all over the world, and a market value of $70.9 billion in 2017, is much beyond the reach of any other coffee chain in the world. However, within just two decades, Indian society, particularly the makeup of the urbanite, has changed remarkably. I’m undecided whether Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) is partly instrumental in that, or the tremendous growth of CCD within the day-to-day affairs of the Indian middle-class can be treated as an indicator to that only. Maybe both, to some extent.
We now know that Siddhartha wrote, “I have failed as an entrepreneur.” Did he? It seems that he misread and downplayed his own success. Don’t forget that he changed the lifestyle of millions of urban Indian people. He created a brand with a value of Rs 8,000 crore. There are about 1,750 outlets of CCD in the cities and towns of the country now, with nearly 20,000 employees. Most Indian coffee-drinkers tasted their first cup of cappuccino in a CCD outlet, for sure. Many Indians have now learnt to drink coffee due to CCD.
A few years back, when I used to order ‘Americano’ in a CCD outlet, they issued a standard cautionary statement every time: ‘That’s black coffee, Sir.” Now, they usually don’t. It indicates that people in the country have learnt to drink coffee within these few years. And, what’s more, Siddhartha could make urban Indians believe that “a lot can happen over coffee”
Not only hang outs for regular ‘adda’, which is a ‘must do’ for millions in their daily lives, CCD with clean and air-conditioned outlets with cordial service, soft music and TV, most importantly with the facility of clean toilets, is a well-known venue for reunion of school or college friends, an obvious meeting place for romance, a standard meeting place for business, interviews, real estate deals, counselling, arranging or negotiating marriage (and divorce, of course), and what not.
Many people might have met their future spouse in a CCD outlet for the first time, or got the idea of their start-up with a cup of coffee while in a CCD. It was even a pleasant place to wait for a few hours with a laptop or a book and of course a cup of good coffee, after dropping your kid to a tuition class or a music session. Howard Schultz is known to be constantly reminding his team, “We are not in the coffee business serving people; we are in the people business serving coffee.”
Siddhartha’s CCDs might have become an Indian version blended with that philosophy. True, such a remarkable shift in the fabric of Indian lifestyle was possibly inevitable in course of time, be it through CCD or through any other brand. However, other coffee chains, both Indian and multinational have come to the Indian market in the years since. But somehow none could come close to CCD yet, in terms of reaching out to common people.
And, in course, CCD has been developed as a ‘Made in India’ brand, one made for Indian society. What’s more, Siddhartha’s CCD possibly redefined the concept of privacy in a public place in the context of the traditional yet aspirant Indian society in the perspective of an ever-expanding economy of trillions of dollars. Yes, there is no doubt that many people would like to see him as the Howard Schultz of India. And that’s his great success as an entrepreneur, indeed.