A lot can happen over coffee

In a tribute to VG Siddhartha, Captain Gopinath of Air Deccan wrote, “Before (Café) Coffee Day, even in the South, the middle class went to Udupi hotels to read papers over coffee and chat and sip coffee with friends. The Udupi hotels were the favourite hangout places for Kannada writers. The journalists and writers of English press went to a few select coffee houses in the cantonment area. The modern youth never visited them. Siddhartha changed all that — the entire cultural landscape — through his ubiquitous coffee shops, both in the South and the rest of India where very few drank coffee (but) spent hours over books or laptops or simply unwinding with friends”.

When little-known entrepreneur Siddhartha opened his first Café Coffee Day (CCD) outlet at Brigade Road in 1996 at Bangalore — which was fast developing into the “pub capital of India” at the time — youngsters at first sneered at the idea of spending hours hanging out over a coffee but realised pretty soon that “a lot could happen over coffee”. Coffee and an hour of internet surfing cost Rs 100 — not cheap by the standards of those days (no wonder CCDs were initially called ‘internet cafes’) but then nobody gave anyone dirty looks for hanging around for hours over that cup of coffee, nobody frowned when you just sat there sipping the coffee and doing your assignments and your homework in the ambient air-conditioning, nobody chided you for talking loudly or laughing or just sitting there watch the world go by. Nobody disturbed you if you were there with a girl; no one bothered if a foreigner just sat cross-legged in one corner immersed in a philosophical tome. CCD birthed a completely new phenomenon in the India of the 90s: “my-space, my pace”.

Barista followed. Then Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Costa Coffee, Georgia Coffee, Gloria Coffee, Coffee by Di Bella, Café Mocha … McCafe. And of course, Starbucks. But CCD outpaced them all. By 2008 CCD had opened 595 outlets; by 2012, the count was 1400; today in 2019 CCD has nearly 1700 cafes, around 48,000 vending machines, 532 kiosks and 403 ground coffee selling outlets. By comparison Barista has today just 220 outlets; and Starbucks 136. 

CCD’s biggest achievement has been to get a predominantly tea-drinking country (especially the North & West) to take to coffee with such gusto. The introduction of a menu of choice that ranged from Café Latte to Café Americano to Café Mocha to Macchiato to a Vanilla Cappuccino in hot coffees to Café Frappe to Dark Frappe to Kaapi Nirvana in cold options was quite a leap forward from the Nescafe hot coffee that used to be available in plastic cups from vending machines at airports and offices. Teas are available too, but coffee was, and remains, king at CCDs. More exotic introductions followed over the years … Devil’s Own Cocoa Cream, Tender Coconut Lemonade, Tropical Iceberg, Cool Blue … plus a whole range of breads, munchies, meals and desserts that ranged from Frittata Omelettes to Spicy Sriracha Chicken to Peri Peri Ciabatta to Wok Tossed Oriental to Rice Sizzle Dazzle Brownie. CCD evolved as it reached more diverse audiences in more diverse geographies, offering a new experience not just in beverages but also more exotic and inviting food choices that were both aspirational and a tad more expensive, hence premium.

Most importantly, CCD pioneered the ‘hang-out’ generation in India over the past two decades. It introduced free wi-fi (initially for limited time) but then kind of made it as a standard offering. I personally attended at least two meetings with VG Siddhartha in 2011/12 on creating wi-fi hotspots at all CCDs. Siddhartha was fully cognizant of the value of the wi-fi freebie to young millennials. We discussed various advertiser funded models to make the wi-fi free to all CCD customers, while concurrently offering third-party brands a captive younger audience. I remember sharing my experience of keitai (kill time) from Japan and how the coffee shop culture had mushroomed in that country because of youngsters just sitting around and literally killing-time on their mobile phones. Siddhartha had been fascinated. I did not however need to preach to the converted. 

The coming in of Starbucks did shake-up CCD somewhat. The global brand's offering was much classier, albeit costlier. But the better heeled customer almost immediately switched loyalties. While there have been claims in media that 94% of all CCDs are cash-positive on a stand-alone basis, I would take that statistic with a pinch of salt. Of late CCD has started to lose momentum. Too many stores. Sparser foot-falls. Somewhat frayed interiors. No new innovations on the menu. A brand beginning to look somewhat stagnant, weary and tired.

I don't know where CCD is headed. I do hope it survives. And prospers. It really has been one of the best Indian brands created post liberalisation. A brand that ‘youngifyed’ India and let a lot happen over coffee. 
The writer is an advertising and media veteran Email: sandeep@goyalmail.com