Storm in a mug: How Starbucks' case against it made Sardarbuksh a star

The Sardarbuksh outlet in Hauz Khas, New Delhi
There’s a typical aroma that one associates with a coffee shop. Usually, it is a mix of coffee beans and vanilla, which is meant to draw a customer towards the standard order of a cappuccino and muffin. Management gurus call this scent marketing. Sardarbuksh Coffee & Co’s tiny outlet in Hauz Khas, New Delhi, seems to have this formula down pat. Fairy lights at the entrance and warm lighting inside are welcome additives to this mix.

On a Thursday evening, all 10 seats are occupied and delivery executives on bikes rush in and out. For a coffee outlet that’s just three-and-a-half-months old, this is quite a feat. And it has a lot to do with an ongoing lawsuit between the owners of Sardarbuksh and the American coffee chain, Starbucks Coffee Company.

Sardarbuksh, a pun and Punjabi take on the popular American chain, was established in 2015 by two enterprising young men, Sanmeet Singh Kalra and Rohit Kamboj. Its older logo even had a silhouette of a Sikh man’s face and turban in the same green-and-white colour theme as the Starbucks logo of a two-tailed mermaid with a crown. It wasn’t long before Starbucks noticed this local spin to its global brand and slapped a legal notice on Kalra and Kamboj. The Sardarbuksh logo was suitably modified and its colour scheme changed to a fiery yellow with black.

But Starbucks wasn’t impressed and it filed a suit in the Delhi High Court against Kalra and Kamboj. “What is surprising is that the suit came from Starbucks’s Utah division and not their Indian company,” says Shivank Verma, who runs Sardarbuksh’s Hauz Khas outlet. 

Verma and business partner, Nishant Mitthal, decided to take up a Sardarbuksh franchise after they saw how popular its outlets in other parts of Delhi were. “I wasn’t convinced initially, but Mitthal asked me to visit the Netaji Subhash Place branch and see how well it was doing.” Verma hopes he can open a Sardarbuksh café in Mumbai soon.

“For now, we get to keep the name. But it’s a long fight ahead,” he says. Verma’s café is close to Niti Bagh, where some of Delhi’s top lawyers live. “Some have even come and told us that they’re willing to help in whatever way they can,” he grins.

Sardarbuksh logo
This grit seems to run strong in Kalra, too. While he politely refuses to share details of the case, his belief in his business model is unshaken. “I don’t think Indian customers are so illiterate that they will mistake Sardarbuksh for Starbucks,” he says. The 28-year-old, who belongs to Sirsa in Haryana, started Sardarbuksh with his childhood friend Kamboj, also 28, through a tiny kiosk in Gurugram with an initial investment of Rs 10,000. “I wanted to start a business in the food and beverages sector, and I love coffee. So then I thought, why not [a café]?”

The Sardarbuksh menu is vastly different from what is offered at Starbucks, both in terms of the items and their prices. Kalra says they source coffee beans locally and work directly with bean suppliers from Karnataka. The iced variant of the Bengaluru filter coffee has a distinctly Indian flavour and offers an entirely different palate from the coffee varieties at Starbucks. A chicken wrap and cold coffee costs Rs 350, which is substantially lower than the Starbucks price point.

But it is perhaps the gumption of Kalra and Kamboj that has irked Starbucks. On the ever-crowded Punjabi Bagh Club Road, Sardarbuksh has a takeaway window just a few metres from a large Starbucks outlet. Both are open till around midnight and fairly popular at all hours of the day. Eventually, though, copyright infringement is a serious violation of the law and Sardarbuksh may have to give in to Starbucks’s demand to rechristen the Indian chain Sardarjibuksh. For now, the court has allowed its seven existing cafés in Delhi to retain the name Sardarbuksh, but Kalra will have to rename all upcoming franchisees Sardarjibuksh.

Meanwhile, the local phenomenon is cashing in on the intrigue it has brewed. “One would think there was some sale or discount, looking at how people have been coming in since the news of the lawsuit broke,” laughs Verma. Who will eventually laugh their way out of the court is yet to be seen.