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The Changing Face of Coffee Shops


When I was younger and I spent days with my nose buried in books, I always imagined what a coffee shop would really look like. I pictured a warm and cozy room with a fireplace, bookshelves for miles and a counter where different family members helped you with different things. Every coffee shop in my head was run by a family, because that was just the way the books made them seem. I couldn’t wait to get out of boarding school and explore the world and find these coffee shops that would complete my life.

What nobody told me was that coffee shops in India were mostly roadside shops where you can’t sit on comfy couches and sip from mismatched cups and saucers. The older I got and the more the country changed, the more I was convinced that the books and movies I was watching were making things up just to make everything look great. Of course, abroad they still have those kind of coffee shops that are run by families and everyone works there till they have enough or get married and move away.

I got my first taste of a coffee shop when we visited New York on holiday as a teenager and I stood in a long line waiting for my steaming hot cup of hot chocolate (because my father insisted that teenagers did not drink coffee). It was such a wonderful experience and a sight that I would never forget. But it wasn’t the coffee shops of imagination and I was still a little disappointed.

College was really when I was exposed to the coffee shop culture in India. There was a Café Coffee Day close to campus and we spent so much time there when we weren’t in class (or should have been in class, even). I was starting to accept the fact that the coffee shops of my imagination were going to be just that, my imagination. And while I was upset at this knowledge, I was also glad that I wasn’t living with this belief forever.


The Change

India is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, with our coffee and tea estates, it’s no surprise that we produce and consume lots of coffee per year. While selling specialized coffee has always existed, one of the best ways to not only make money but give everyone a chance to enjoy the coffee is to set up a franchise of coffee shops around the country and provide them with specials and drinks that they wouldn’t get anywhere else. Your roadside shops would give you the basic coffee, but the coffee shops would give you something more. At thrice the price.

But people didn’t mind spending the money, because you were getting to sit inside an air-conditioned café, drinking delicious coffee concoctions and chatting with your friends.

The original franchise of coffee shops is obviously Starbucks, since they have been around since the 70s in Seattle, Washington. Every one that has come after has been an imitation of the original. Not to say that they’ve done a bad job, because not only have they created a name for themselves, each of the Indian coffee brands has over 200 shops in the country and that’s not something that happens randomly.


Coffee Shops Today

I discovered, very recently, that there are still some of those old school coffee shops in the city of Chennai. They don’t have elaborate menus, they serve great food and provide you with free wi-fi and a comfortable place to sit while you sip on your coffees and read a book or want to spend some quality time with your loved one. While it’s a dying breed, there are always going to be a few hanging around, just waiting for people to notice them.

And after years of rumours and teasing coffee lovers all over, Starbucks is finally in India. For most, being at Starbucks is like an adventure. Their menu alone will make your head spin and if you’ve never heard of so many varieties before, you’re going to be asking a million questions before you make your choice – which only pisses off everyone waiting in line behind you. That’s not to say that asking questions is bad, it’s just that customers at coffee shops rarely have the patience for indecisive people.

The coffee shops of my imagination – remember those? – didn’t have self service, didn’t make you wait in line. You walked in, found a spot to sit and someone came over to take your order. Here, you’re standing for what seems like ever to place your order, then you’re waiting for some more time till your name is called out and you’ve lost all hope of finding a place to sit. Unless, of course, you came as a group or couple and everyone else ran off to save you a table.

Self-service is great and all, but it’s so impersonal and you’re just standing there waiting. And the same people who didn’t know what to order, won’t know if they have to add sugar or caramel or chocolate sauce or sprinkles of what have you to their drink because nobody is telling them what to do. Self-service also translates to ‘do it yourself’, so there’s a lot of tripping over your own feet and making mistakes before you get the hang of it.

My grandfather, a man who knows lots about coffee and even manages a coffee and tea estate, has no patience for places like these, but it’s where his grandchildren spend their time, so he makes an effort. But you can see that these new age coffee shops aren’t designed for the older generation, the generation that is used to being served instead of serving themselves.

Maybe I’m being old fashioned or I’m just still clinging to my imagination, but wouldn’t it be great if we could have more homely coffee shops to visit in our cities?