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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2004

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Tenth Anniversary Special - Marketing

Coffee: Life in a new brew

Sudha Menon

A CUP of coffee is a cup of coffee is a cup of coffee, right? Wrong! A cup of coffee is a lifestyle statement and if you have not gotten around to visiting the nearest espresso bar in your neighbourhood and sipping some of the heavenly, swirling-with-cream chocolate or cinnamon concoctions, you are in danger of being labelled as something from the age of the dino!

Good old kaapi, the kind that people who grew up with the aroma of it at breakfast and tiffin time, is almost a thing of the past. Coffee today comes in stylishly designed mugs with varied toppings and is accompanied by a hefty price tag that the `brew-master' at the espresso bar hands out to you, packaged with a smile.

Purists who shelled out Rs 5 for a cuppa will probably goggle at the Rs 30 plus that a cup of coffee at these espresso bars sets one back by, but price is the last thing that committed new age coffee-drinkers think about when they drop in at their favourite coffee bar.

The story of India's burgeoning coffee culture was given a boost after Café Coffee Day, the chain from Amalgamated Coffee, rolled out in its original form as a cyber café, converted itself into a coffee bar. The last few years have seen the pioneering brand move from strength to strength — 138 Café Coffee Day outlets across the country at last count, and growing. Other corporates have been quick to take off on the idea and the market is today flooded with any number of regional and country level players jumping into the fray for leadership over people's palates.

"We are not worried about competition. In fact, competition will speed up the pace at which the concept of coffee bars will be accepted," says Mr Yogesh Samat, CEO of espresso bar brand Barista, in which the Tata group has a 34 per cent stake. Mr Samat, a former HLL veteran responsible for setting up the Lakme Beauty Salon chain, is now hard at work bringing the same glamour into the way coffee is consumed. And so are the other players, with the result that sipping coffee has never been so much fun for the consumer.

Mr Shashi Chimala, CEO, Chimayo Chains, which owns the Qwiky's brand of coffee bars, however, makes an interesting observation. The market has to evolve, he says, adding that "coffee pubs in the country are still selling ambience and not the product. Ask him to distinguish, and he says there's a difference between treating a coffee pub as a fashionable hang-out and between making a statement as someone who appreciates gourmet coffee. He cites the example of Starbucks in the US: It has a major presence in institutional sales - employees at offices get Starbucks coffee free in their own mugs or in a plastic cup, but that doesn't prevent them from buying branded coffee from Starbucks outlets on their way to work.

Having tasted the sweet success of their brew, the coffee chains, ever on the look-out for more business, are now increasing the scope of their operations, both in terms of target audience and the geographical spread. At least 10 Barista outlets in Mumbai city now have wi-fi facilities in place, making them great places to do business from. It is no longer unusual to see corporate types staring into their laptops, making powerpoint presentations or meeting up with business associates at a coffee bar.

However hip, coffee pubs have had to bow to the Indian palate. Qwiky's has had to Indianise its food quite a bit. And it is the first and probably still the only chain serving South Indian filter coffee, which helped bring in a different set of customers.

Other regional, smaller aspirants in the business, like Mumbai city's exotic Mocha Coffee and Conversations, offer customers an entirely different coffee experience. Customers walking into the outlet can lounge on cushion-laden gaddis, experience the exotica of inhaling from shishas (hookahs), sip the coffee of their choice and even shop for coffee memorabilia and handicrafts. Reliance's Java Green is another variation in model - it is primarily a cyber café and the F&B is managed by Qwiky's.

The growth of coffee bars, meanwhile, has also given rise to a new breed of go-getting youngsters who work at these places as brew-masters and are, for all purposes, the face of the coffee company. At Barista, for instance, over 500 graduates work shifts at their outlets and take home anything upwards of Rs 5,000 for their efforts.

Not many of them, says, Mr Samat, go on to take up responsibilities in the higher echelons of management with the company but most of them use the job to kick-start their careers before looking for bigger opportunities.

(Reporter associate: Sravanthi Challapalli)

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