Forty stores across Chennai, 120 shop-in-shop outlets and more than 100 years of being in the business…Venu Srinivasan of Leo Coffee shares the company’s bean and brew story with Shonali Muthalaly
Venu Srinivasan looks perplexed. “A davara and tumbler?” We nod enthusiastically. “Now?” We nod again, determined to get a striking picture for this story. And, what could be more appropriate than a portrait of the young scion of Leo Coffee enjoying a hot cuppa in his century-old office.
Except, there’s one small hitch. “We drink from paper cups here,” smiles Venu sheepishly. We look appropriately horrified. This, after all, is the heart of Chennai’s filter coffee culture: South Mada Street, Mylapore. From where we are standing, in a conference room on the first floor, we can look into the Kapaleeshwarar temple tank. A couple of buildings away, in the company’s oldest store, dark peaberry beans are being ground into a fragrant powder. You just have to lean out of the window to soak in that signature Mylapore scent of coffee, fresh jasmine flowers and ripe fruit, sold by chatty vendors sitting cross-legged along the road.
Right now, however, we’re busy tut-tutting at poor Venu. “But really, does anyone use the davara-tumbler anymore?” he counters. There’s a quiet gasp from his older employees. “Of course,” says one firmly, adding “I’ll find one.” In 10 minutes, he’s back with a shiny set, filled to the brim with steaming coffee. Venu obediently picks it up and poses, stopping only for a quick sip.
It’s an appropriate metaphor for the space the gracious old company now occupies. After more than 100 years in the coffee business, the family that runs Leo is finding ways to be relevant in a contemporary coffee culture, without compromising on their heritage and tradition. While Venu’s father, grand-father and great-great-grand father spent their lives creating a brand that in many ways represents Madras, Venu’s role is to find ways for Leo to connect with Chennai. On the face of it, this means finding ways to reconcile two completely different worlds: Its filter coffee versus espresso. Decoction versus vending machines. Davaras versus paper cups. In reality, however, as with most challenges in life, it’s not so black and white.
“The bottom line is we are very traditional,” he says, discussing how working in a family-owned company means staying true to the ideals of the founder. “So although we advocate change, we don’t want it to happen too fast. Nor do we ever want to become ultra modern. The idea is to be classy, but still faintly rustic — so people remember our roots.” This is why the office — a charming collection of rooms of varying sizes, arranged higgledy-piggledy, connected by random teak-lined corridors and punctuated by placidly rotund wooden pillars — has not changed in 100 years.
The interview begins at Venu’s office downstairs, where he tells me about his great-grand father P.R.K. Nadar. “We’ve been in the coffee business since 1910. My family is originally from Pattiveeranpatti… My great-grandfather was a trader for the European missionaries. He ended up buying estates from them in Palani Hills.” Nadar gradually expanded his estates to over 2,000 acres, then set up coffee processing and curing facilities. The family still owns the plantations — Little Flower Estates and Sancta Maria estates — which at an altitude of 4,500 ft above sea level are ideal for growing specialty coffees.
“My grandfather came to Chennai and started the brand Leo. It’s named after a former French Archbishop of Madurai, called Father Leonard,” says Venu, adding, “When my father said he was going to name the company after him, the Archbishop said, ‘Call it Leo instead of Leonard’. It’s easier to remember.” The first move was to buy an old Mylapore house, and turn it into the office. “Well, at that time it was a multi-functional space,” says Venu, guiding us through the quirky building. “Workers would sleep here in dormitories. They even kept cows at the back!”
Today, Leo has 40 stores across Chennai, as well as 120 ‘Shop-in-Shop’ outlets in big supermarkets and department stores. “We began these three years ago, to take coffee to the younger customers,” says Venu, explaining how freshly roasted beans are dispatched to every store and outlet, where they are then ground on demand for customers. “We source our beans from Karnataka through agents who have been working with us for decades. Our main coffee roaster has been with us for almost 40 years,” he adds, attempting to explain why their coffee is so special.
The packaged coffee comes in about seven varieties. “Including coffee with chicory,” Venu groans. “Till four years ago we never sold it. It’s a root, which when roasted and ground has the texture of coffee powder. Highly solvent, chicory gives colour and thickness, which a lot of people like… It’s also much cheaper than coffee.” He adds, “My dad hates it!” However, in an attempt to cater to a fast-changing market, they started experimenting with various blends, from Madras Blend, with 20 per cent chicory to their Breakfast Roast, which has 40 per cent. “We used to look at it as a bad, evil thing,” says Venu, “But the market is too big to avoid. Especially in Andhra, where they love the taste…”
At home, however, his parents still drink a classic Leo blend: “All old customers order this in our stores, a mix of Special Pea Berry and Special A. It’s only available loose and fresh ground.” Their packaged ‘House blend’ is also obstinately still ‘pure coffee’. “Now we’re selling Espresso Beans, targeted at all these trendy new cafés. We’re also planning to start marketing single origin coffee from our own estates, even though that’s a niche market.”
Venu’s immediate plans involve vending machines, which explains the profusion of paper cups. “We are consciously expanding our base. We find that many people prefer to drink filter coffee outside instead of making it at home, so we are now targeting that market.” He adds, “We intend to put them in our stores, in hospitals and malls… But we’re moving cautiously, it has to be good coffee. Our brand, after all, is at stake.”
In the end, it’s clear that the family’s loyalties lie with their traditional customer base, which is probably what keeps the brand so strong. We end the interview at Leo’s dim store in Mylapore, dusty with coffee, watching customers line up. “We have people who come here every morning to buy 50 gm of coffee for the day,” says Venu, adding with a grin that he too believes that nothing beats freshly-made decoction. “After all, filter coffee is just not a two-minute drink. It’s an early morning ritual.”