COFFEE, CONVERSATION AND RUNNING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Few things represent post liberalization India, as the coffee shop culture which sprang up in urban areas.

Coffee shops became places to meet.

People converged to socialize, discuss business and later as wireless internet spread, at least some started using these spaces as surrogate offices.

It isn’t that places to socialize were not available before. Every region had its unique flag bearer in this regard. Mumbai had its Irani cafes and Udupi restaurants, although neither encouraged conversation over commerce. A sense of allotted time hung like Damocles Sword at these outfits. In South India, besides the ubiquitous tea shop, there were the branches of the Indian Coffee House (ICH), an enterprise founded in the 1950s and firmly identified with the working class. They were affordable coffee houses, feet planted on the ground and having no pretense to being café or coffee shop, the latter concept associated in India with upmarket appearance and menu. ICH had branches elsewhere too but its mainstay was the south.

Following the initial flush of entrants in the coffee shop business, some of the players scaled back. It was Café Coffee Day (CCD) that eventually went nationwide in a prominent way, in the segment. V. G. Siddhartha’s business group had a major presence in coffee estates and coffee trading; CCD was in some ways its most visible retail face. The first CCD outlet opened in Bengaluru in July 1996. Notwithstanding costly fare (compared to the cafes and coffee houses of previous decades), CCD’s branch network spread to India’s cities and towns. This new space for coffee and conversation touched many of us, whose careers / adult years coincided with the India brewed afresh by liberalization. As of July 2019, CCD was India’s biggest chain of coffee shops by a significant margin.

On July 30, 2019, twenty three years after the first CCD appeared on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, the media reported that Siddhartha had gone missing from the bridge over the Netravati River near Mangaluru. The next day his body was recovered from the river. News reports in the wake of the tragedy, pointed to a business under stress. The episode was tracked by many of us. We paused to reflect on Siddhartha’s demise because the number of us who visited a CCD outlet or passed by one in our daily lives, was not small. Quite a few of the conversations with runners and cyclists featured on this blog, happened at one CCD outlet or another for they represented space to sit and talk. Wikipedia’s page on the company says that in 2010 when CCD’s current logo was designed, it was to “ showcase the chain as a place to talk.’’

The coffee estates Siddhartha’s company owns have been location for the annual Malnad Ultra. It is a trail run involving ultramarathon distances. There is a September 2016 report in the Economic Times (available on the Internet) on the subject. The report precedes the event’s first edition. According to it, “ the coffee baron has offered a 10-year access to his plantations, which stretch across 13,000 acres of the Western Ghats.’’  The Malnad Ultra has since become an event with distinct fan following.

 (The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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