The vintage charm may be fading, yet Indian Coffee Houses continue to be a tale in survival

Indian Coffee House — much before brands were in vogue, this one invoked unflinching loyalty. Over 50-years-old, this worker’s co-operative has meant many things for many people. An “intellectual” hub where cigarette smoke wafted lazily with long discussions, a place where genial “suppliers” in crisp white coats, shimmering waist bands and quaint head gear that flared into a fan, served fresh “set coffee”, warm cutlets and perfect omelettes.

Down the years many things have changed as the brand traded quaintness for the popular. The leisurely air has given way to crowds and scramble. The one constant though are the suppliers in their vintage attire, genial still to a fair extent. Once a meeting place where one could linger unapologetically for an hour over coffee, coffee houses now have shaken off the comforting pace for the snappy, re-incarnating themselves as a pit-stop for a quick bite.

Changing scenes

“I have heard customers after a two-minute wait shouting at the suppliers to serve the order fast,” says Balakrishnan P.V., president, Indian Coffee Workers Co-operative Society Ltd., Kannur. “These days even as we have lunch, people stand behind us waiting for their turn,” says P. Gopinathan, a coffee-house loyalist for the past 30 years. Both are pointers to the changing times. The office bearers say while they have changed to stay afloat, so too have the times. Discussions on all and sundry at a public place are diminishing as a cultural practice. “The society has changed. Where do people have the time to spend in a coffee house?” asks V.K. Sasidharan, secretary of the society for the region.

In an institution where most begin at the entry level as workers and gradually work up the ranks, the employees themselves become the greatest documenters of the change. “We would begin our day filling the salt and pepper bottles and emptying the ash tray,” remembers Satheesan E.M., manager at an Indian Coffee House outlet on Mavoor Road. Satheesan’s association with the coffee house began 35 years ago as a cleaning boy. “I remember customers who would sit till they finished an entire packet of Charminar cigarettes, while others came with a bundle of newspapers to finish. Those days we had the set coffee which had decoction, milk, sugar and cups presented separately. It was enough for three. Knife and fork were always present and so was the boy who took pleasure in stealing them,” he says.

It was also a space where bonds were forged as customers graduated from strangers to acquaintances. Satheesan vividly remembers serving ice-cream to film director Shyamaprasad, then a small boy. “The so called ‘ice cream’ was frozen pineapple juice which they serve to this day and it would take away all the pain and bitterness of being at the dentist’s,” recollects Shyamaprasad.

While the coffee houses have become no-smoking zones, the knives and forks are only for those who seek them. The coffee blend has not withstood change either. “Our coffee was a blend of Robusta and Plantation seeds. Plantation had flavour but was not strong, while Robusta lacked flavour, but was strong. We used to blend them to get the right balance of strength and flavour. These seeds are now used only for export,” says Satheesan.

Changes in the institution’s character have taken place step by step, says Sasidharan. If sandwiches, cutlets, cakes and nuts were the staple snacks of yore, it gradually expanded to include dosas, rice, biryani, vada, porotta and puttu. The earthy newcomers slowly eased out the old. “We had about 11 dishes made with bread — bread-butter, bread toast, egg sandwich, French toast etc. An Irish lady who had our French toast had paid glowing tributes to it in our visitor’s book. But now, there is hardly any demand for these items,” says Satheesan.

Part of life

Coffee houses were part of growing-up, says Shyamaprasad. “It was a favourite joint of mine in college — chatting for hours on end, relishing the meat samosas or cutlets with coffee. Later, masala dosas were introduced. Though it changed the pure western menu, it was still very tasty and we loved it,” he says.

Shyamaprasad rues the loss of the picturesque buildings in Palakkad and Thiruvananthapuram which housed coffee houses once and also the change in the menu. “Today’s patrons might be thankful that even Kerala meals is served there, but I for one lament the loss of the originality of its snack-only menu,” he says.

Coffee houses waded through tough times by growing from a snack joint to a place where one can walk in for any meal. “A coffee house stands for reliability and low cost. When there is price hike all over, we often increase our prices last, when there is no go,” says Balakrishnan. These are factors long-time customers find difficult to break away from.

A habit

Gopinathan who admits to seeking out coffee houses when he travels to other towns says, “At coffee house, the food is fresh, relatively hygienic, so reliable and the staff well-behaved. Despite the growing business, they are yet to adapt to certain things, like having good washroom facilities.” Balakrishnan says washrooms have been a serious issue which they are looking to tackle effectively. But when it comes to greater customer services including bigger, airy spaces, he says their hands are tied.

“Out of the 20 outlets in the Malabar, 19 function out of rented buildings. The rents of these places have more than doubled in the past year. Earlier, having a coffee house in their building was a matter of pride for the owners,” says Balakrishnan. Despite the volume of business, he says the basic principles on which the co-operative functions beginning with a decent pay even for entry-level employees, mean the profits are never huge. “Even in this region there are 4-5 outlets which are running at loss and we cover it with profits from other centres,” he says.

Old-timers like Shyamaprasad still drops in at the coffee house. “I still do visit the place now and then, even though it has changed beyond recognition. I try to take my children and tell them how gloriously charming it was once. They must be thinking that I am being sentimental as they find hardly anything to cherish there now.”

But Balakrishnan asserts there is still hope for coffee houses which allows you to smell the past. The society has brought 40 cents of land in Kannur where a sprawling coffee house will come, he says. “It will have two restaurants and the plan is to make one a heritage coffee house.”