Made in Madras Society

Mylapore mocha

The Leo Coffee building Photo: Special arrangement  

For many vegetable shoppers at the Mylapore market, it’s a daily ritual to round off the evening with coffee at one of Leo’s kiosks. But not all of them know that a single-storey building in the locality, with antique grilled windows and a blue-and-white board that says ‘P.R.K. Nadar Sons, Coffee Wholesale Merchants’, was where it all began.

Leo, right now, is in the process of marrying new-gen strategies with the traditional ideals it has upheld since the days of its founder P.R.K. Bhaskaran. There’s social media marketing, new kiosks are being opened in the city, e-commerce is being pursued with vigour, a call centre team operates out of a swanky new office opposite the Chitrakulam...

But, look closer and you will see signs of the old times that the current managing director Venu Srinivasan refuses to let go of. The framed newspaper clippings from when the company was started, the black-and-white photos of the founding family’s ancestors, the carved wooden door frame, the vintage iron safe... Leo has changed, but also not, in a certain sense.

Leo’s story began sometime during the 19th Century in the picturesque European coffee estates of the Western Ghats. P.R. Karupiah Nadar, Venu’s great grandfather, traded coffee grown in the estates, and later acquired a few acres himself.

Karupiah was from Pattiveeranpatti in Madurai district, which Venu describes as a “coffee village”. “Almost everyone there has something to do with coffee,” he says.

It was Venu’s grandfather, Bhaskaran, who started a coffee business in Madras in 1971. He bought a building very close to the Mylapore temple tank and established a factory with people from his village. “This building has been here since the 1870s. It is said to have been occupied by a large joint family,” recalls Venu.

Bhaskaran soon started the first shop, which ground roasted beans for customers. He named his brand ‘Leo’ after Fr. John Peter Leonard, the then archbishop of Madurai. “He was a father-figure to my grandfather,” says Venu.

Leo gradually grew in popularity and spread to other parts of the city. Venu remembers a time when customers would queue up for long hours in front of their T. Nagar shop, in the 90s.

It was during this time that a college kid, an upcoming musician, was roped in to compose a jingle for their TV advertisement. The tune was refreshing and left viewers with the same content one feels after a hot cuppa. The advertisement went on to become a hit; while the music composer’s career took off — A.R. Rahman’s veenai jingle made the brand extremely popular. Snapshots from the ad are framed and hung in Venu’s office. “The music told the story,” says the 32-year-old.

Leo’s coffee beans are sourced from the estates of Karnataka, which, according to Venu, produce the best coffee in the country. “We only recently started marketing the coffee from our own estate, called ‘Little Flower’. It’s single-origin coffee,” he adds. Since Venu took over in 2009 from his father B. Srinivasan, Leo’s shop-in-shop outlets inside the city’s supermarkets have gone up to 250; they have 40 branches and a wide distribution network that spreads as far as Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

It’s no surprise that Venu is a big coffee drinker. “I have five cups a day. I make the first cup myself in the morning — I like to have it black,” he says. His ancestors were coffee connoisseurs too. “My grandfather used to drink coffee in tall mugs. Imagine how many cups that would amount to if he had, say, five such mugs a day,” he laughs. Venu feels that the ideal way to enjoy good coffee is to have it black. He adds: “Sugar kills coffee.”

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 7:44:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/Mylapore-mocha/article14547559.ece

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