Filter coffee perhaps remains one of the most compelling identities of Chennai. But in the last decade-and-a-half, swanky cafés with fancily priced espressos have been popular for brewing both machine-made concoctions and endless conversations. Sudhish Kamath tracks down the journey

Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to sit with a friend and talk over coffee, you would’ve probably headed towards Woodlands Drive In, Saravana Bhavan, Ratna Café or Geetha Café depending on which part of the city you live in, and walked out with a bill of about Rs. 10 to Rs. 20.

Today, if you were to drop in to a modern café — take your pick among the city’s coolest hangouts: Amethyst, Anokhi, L’ Amandier, Latitude or any of the Café Coffee Day, Barista or Costa Coffee outlets — you would end up with a bill that’s at least 10 to 20 times more than what it used to be.

Now, 1999 was not too long ago. It was just three years after Madras became Chennai!

“Coffee was considered the oldie’s drink because young people had soft drinks. A cup of coffee used to cost just Rs. 5,” says Koushik S., culinary operations officer of Eatitude restaurant consultancy, who boasts having set up the first modern coffee shop in India.

“I was the product development manager at the first Café Coffee Day outlet that opened in India on Brigade Road, Bangalore. It was called Cyber Café; we had Internet and coffee. We soon rebranded as Café Coffee Day and opened up in Indira Nagar in 1997. Coffee Day was the name of the powder brand and the café was just a result of coffee production and forward integration for the coffee group. We started by selling filter coffee for Rs. 5 and when we first wanted to price coffee for Rs. 15 to Rs. 20, it was not accepted. It took a lot of work,” he explains.

But then, for Chennai, the coffee culture was not new. “Coffee and conversation in the city dates back to pre-Independence days in Mylapore when the oldest coffee houses would roast peaberry beans and make filter coffee. In Madras Presidency, coffee was a way of life — the day would begin and end with coffee. Srinivasa Ramanujam, the mathematician from Kumbakonam, was a hardcore caffeine addict who used to have 10 to 15 cups of coffee a day. The culture of intelligent conversation and coffee then became associated with the kutcheris and the sabhas,” notes Koushik.

In 1999, when Sashi Chimala started Qwikys Coffee, the city’s first coffee chain on October 1, it did sound like someone trying to sell ice-cream to the Eskimo and that too, at five to ten times the cost!

The founder of Qwikys, who later went on to set up the Java Green cafés for Reliance around the country as CEO, was an NRI from the U.S. who felt that Chennai needed its own Starbucks, and introduced espresso-based machine-made coffees.

“Basically people had no places to meet because if you stayed after you finished your coffee, waiters would ask you to leave,” Sashi recalls. “Coffee was just a social lubricant. I wanted to create a no-stress environment where nobody would bother you if you stayed long. So I felt people would see the value and pay the premium for coffee.”

Within the next eight months, Café Coffee Day set up shop at the Ispahani Centre. “We noticed that Qwikys was able to do higher pricing by making it trendy. So we changed branding and moved in that direction. The first Barista opened in Delhi three months after Qwikys,” Koushik continues.

Qwikys may have been the city’s first modern coffee chain but not the first modern coffee shop as we know it today. The city’s first popular modern café was Coffee? Started by Nirav Shah, Bhavesh Shah and Pratik Shah in the lane off Greenways Road on July 24, 1999. It was a cosy little coffee shop where the brothers hung out with the regulars. The key to the success of this café was personal relationships.

As Bhavesh Shah, who today heads Food and Beverage for Sathyam Cinemas, reminisces, “Restaurants did not let you sit for four or five hours. So coffee shops are a cheaper option than going to most restaurants when you have to hang out and meet friends every day.”

“Everyone loves their mom’s filter coffee, so they wouldn’t pay so much for filter coffee, but machine-based coffees were different. It was a blind shot. We didn’t know what would work,” adds Bhavesh, who took their signature blend of cold coffee to Sathyam Cinemas, when he joined the chain in 2003.

“Our restaurant ID still serves traditional filter coffee while coffee counters outside theatres serve cappuccinos. People often grab a coffee from ID and take it with them to watch a movie because they prefer filter coffee over cappuccino and latte, but I think that number is dwindling. There are less number of people who drink filter coffee because of fully automatic espresso machines,” says Bhavesh.

Sandesh Reddy, chef and restaurateur of Sandys Chocolate Laboratory, says that he owes his bad grades to Coffee? and Bhavesh Shah, growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“We have just been aping trends from the West. Did you think of paying Rs. 200 for ice-cream 15 years ago? There are cars that cost Rs. 2 two crore today. Dosa is Rs. 200 in the air-conditioned section of a restaurant. Coffee is still a little more accessible. But people will not pay for a filter coffee at a coffee chain because the best filter coffees are still at Sangeethas and Saravana Bhavans. They are paying not for the coffee, but for the experience.

“The modern coffee shop is a place to hang out between meals. People are becoming liberal with the spending. It’s not just coffee, today we have also Kettle and Lloyds Tea House selling tea. We have put a selection of teas to add to the mix though people conceive us as a dessert place. Coffee shops are just a function of requirement in the city,” Sandesh Reddy explains.