By-two coffee to cappuccino

In Bengaluru, the coffee culture pioneered by Udupi restaurants co-exists with the trendy cafe culture promoted by Cafe Coffee Day

V G Siddhartha’s Cafe Coffee Day is credited with creating a culture of coffee-drinking in India. Bengaluru, the city at the centre of his spectacular story, boasted a thriving coffee culture much before the advent of CCD. What Siddhartha’s chain did was to take coffee to cities and towns traditionally fond of tea. 

Siddhartha was born in 1959. If you were to go back to his childhood days, you would find Bengaluru dotted with Udupi restaurants — ‘hotels’ is what they were called, even when they offered no rooms to stay — serving coffee. Typically, they had names like Amba Bhavana and Janatha Hotel, with the tagline of ‘Brahmanara phalahaara mandira,’ loosely translated as ‘Brahmin abode of light eats.’ They were run by entrepreneurs from towns such as Udupi and Kundapura on the Karnataka coast. The cuisine was called Udupi, sometimes misspelt ‘Udipi’ in its Mumbai avatar. You couldn’t find a single Udupi restaurant that did not serve coffee. Orders of idli and sambar, or masala dosa, were almost always concluded with coffee.

The one-by-two culture comes perhaps from the days when friends in the Bengaluru neighourhoods polished off a sumptuous breakfast, and then suddenly felt a twinge of guilt, prompting them to economise on their coffee. So four friends would order two-by-four coffee, drinking half tumblers of the hot brew, and go their ways gratified with their breakfast and their frugal ways.

That culture was to undergo a drastic change in the later decades, when restaurants started putting up boards of ‘No by-two service.’ When the darshinis made an appearance in the

V G Siddhartha

‘80s, they served coffee cheap, and did not allow their customers to split it. This they did by depriving them of extra ‚khali‘ glasses, but they haven’t been successful in banishing the sharing practice. To this day, people split their coffee at the darshinis, and even at the cafes.

There is something heart-warming about sharing your coffee, but it makes no sense to cafes paying high rents and decent wages. Cafes such as the one pioneered by Siddhartha are managed by hard-nosed MBAs who see in the by-two culture a serious loss of revenue, and discourage it sternly. You would look foolish if you went to a CCD and asked for a by-two coffee. Siddhartha took Karnataka’s coffee to the remotest of places in India, but not its quirky coffee-sharing culture.

What Siddhartha achieved was magnificent in scale. Wikipedia says his chain serves 1.8 billion cups of coffee annually across six countries. The company grew its beans on 20,000 acres of its own plantations. Kodagu Connect (@KodaguConnect), a Twitter account that covers the district, saluted him with this tweet: ‘All coffee growers should be indebted to V G Siddartha. Because of Cafe Coffee Day, domestic coffee consumption in India increased by 2 per cent.’

In 1996, when the first CCD outlet made its appearance on Brigade Road, it looked like coffee was finally taking on beer, and cafes were competing with pubs as fashionable hangouts. As the chain spread across Bengaluru, it was clear its target was the more affluent coffee-drinker. Its locations were posh, the ambience trendy, and the furniture plush.

In his delightful Kannada book Namma Oorina Rasikaru (Connoisseurs of Our Town, 1932), Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar suggests that coffee drinking became fashionable in the first two decades of the 20th century.

He describes how a woman, in an attempt to appear modern, claims to drink coffee every morning when in reality she begins her day with a hearty meal of the previous day‘s leftovers. In south India, presumably, coffee began as an aspirational drink, but gradually became routine and workaday. To this day, south Indian families wake up to coffee and a newspaper.

It is fitting that Siddhartha hails from Chikkamagaluru district, the home of coffee in India. In the 17th century, a Sufi peer called Baba Budan visited a port city in Yemen, and brought back seven coffee. He planted them on a hill around his hermitage, and they grew abundantly, spreading eventually to Kodagu and other parts of the Western Ghats. Karnataka was the pioneer in coffee-growing, but the crop is now also grown in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and parts of the North-East.

The port city from where Baba Budan brought those seeds is called Mocha, and that is the name by which cafes to this day serve a variety of chocolatey coffee. Cafes typically offer a range of coffees: mocha, espresso, cappuccino, latte, and so on.

But typically, Bengaluru’s south Indian eateries serve only one variety of coffee. You can ask for strong or light or sugarless, but coffee is just coffee. Bengaluru’s earliest restaurants, MTR and Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan, date back to 1924 and 1926. They have always served only one variety of coffee.

Chains such as Java City have tried their luck in Bengaluru. Java City did encourage a more romantic cafe culture that included Saturday gigs by musicians. CCD hasn’t done much for music or culture. In fact, in its heyday in the early 2000s, a complaint was that the waiters would embarrass the patrons into getting up leaving once their coffee was done. “Anything else, sir,” was a sign that others were waiting to take your table. 

Bengalureans are particular about filter coffee, and a vast majority shun instant coffee. The box shops and the TVS-mounted vendors mainly sell tea, and
they make coffee by mixing their dilute, sugary milk with instant coffee with Bru. On trains in Tamil Nadu, vendors advertise their coffee by telling you it’s instant, their cry being ‘Nes-coffee!’

In Bengaluru, the growth of CCD was aided and abetted by the shrinking of public spaces in Bengaluru, and the boom in the real estate business. In a Bengaluru that strives to become like Singapore, civic amenities sites remain so only on paper, and libraries and parks are hard to come by. In fact, many parks are closed in the afternoons, the time you might want to hang out, read a book, chat with a special friend, or do some work in a quiet place.

CCD cashed in on this vacuum, and created a fashionable space acceptable to everyone: with its transparent frontage and bright lighting, it was safer, more respectable and less shady than the city’s pubs and bars.

You find the best CCDs on the highways. When you drive from Bengaluru to Chennai, you come across a cafe just after Hosur, and similarly, you find many CCDs on the way to Mysuru.

The cafes can’t compete in pricing with the likes of Adyar Anand Bhavan and Shivalli Restaurant, but their breakfast combos attract those who aren’t so keen on idli, dosa and pongal. With croissants, sandwiches and omelettes on the menu, the chain catered to a more Westernised palate. And let’s not forget CCDs are known for the cleanest toilets on the highway.

CCD coffees are priced between Rs 85 and Rs 140. In much of old Bengaluru, the chain is up against darshinis and restaurants pricing their coffee at Rs 10. Maiyas in Jayanagar gives you a cup of their hot, smooth coffee for Rs 22. 

South India is where coffee continues to be a household drink. In Tamil Nadu, you find outlets for what they call degree coffee. That means they use unadulterated milk. When the co-operative milk movement arrived in the state, a lactometer would show purity of milk in degrees, and only undiluted cow’s milk would pass the test. That is how pure milk got the name of degree milk.

Without doubt, Siddhartha was a visionary who saw a worldwide market for the coffee grown in his home state. Recent developments were puzzling: why were CCDs coming up next to one another? For Bengalureans, however, CCDs are always a reminder of home.

What CCD brought to Bengaluru

College hangout
The strategically located Coffee Day outlets in front of colleges made them a favourite hangout for students with enough pocket money to afford their coffee and snacks.

Pit stop on the highway
A warm cuppa when you are driving helps, and CCD has many outlets on the highways. And the clean restrooms are a blessing.

Date with special someone
Be it with the college crush or that secret admirer in office, the signature heart and leaf-shaped latte art on coffee are synonymous with young lovers.

Celebrating birthdays
Amidst the usual ice cream and chocolate treats, it was cool for school children to throw a birthday party at CCD. Of course, the party was preceded by begging for permission and money from parents.

A handy landmark
Every town or city has a CCD on the main road, which meant they were handy landmarks. “Come near CCD, I will wait outside” is a line many of us have heard or used.

Perfect for first meetings
First meetings are always so important, especially when it comes to arranged marriages.

Pubs were too forward (and expensive), restaurants too formal, and parks so old-school. It was CCD that relieved many of the agony of having to decide on a meeting spot.

First pitch here

A common sight: Smartly-dressed professional with open laptop, sipping coffee and glancing impatiently at his watch. An older man walks in.

After a greeting and a handshake, they sit down to an hour of intense discussion.

Countless pitches have been made over coffee, deals fixed, dreams sown.

It all started here

No sign of the first Cafe Coffee Day exists on Brigade Road. The space is being done up.

The family of Suhail Yusuff, owner of Radio House Sony Center, has been in business on the road since 1939. “The CCD here was in business since July 1996 till April this year,” he told Metrolife.

Yusuff describes anyone who did not know Siddhartha’s family as unlucky, since “they were such a lovely family.”

CCD outlets gave business on Brigade Road a boost, and were especially helpful to foreigners, he says.

The first CCD offered free Internet at a time when access was not so easy.

“I made it a point to serve their coffee to my foreign VVIP guests,” says Yusuff.


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