Middle-class India embraces coffee culture
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Middle-class India embraces coffee culture

Cafes replace pubs and parks as the hang-out of choice for many young Indians

Sensing a big and growing market Starbucks has launched in India. It was Mumbai first and recently in national capital New Delhi that witnessed a beeline of people seeking their first taste of the American cafe chain.

Not an extraordinary happening as Indians usually like a new experience, especially when they spot a queue for it. The struggle to get there makes it special. That is why queues in India never get shorter, over time. They only get longer.

Starbucks will add to the Café Coffee Day (CCDs), Costa Coffee, Barista, Gloria Jeans and others already in the market. Due to competition some players have shut down, others are struggling, but overall, doing coffee is good business in India.

Cafes are lifestyle for many in Indian cities now. They are good venues to conduct office meetings, work on a laptop while young couples and friends hang about.

Most coffee shops are brightly lit unlike the dim pubs that like to approximate night during daytime. The marketing people probably link darkness to Old Monk and Black Label and radiance to Latte’s and Cappuccino.

Conversely, the music at pubs is loud compared to lower volume at coffee kiosks, though the numbers could be just the same, David Guetta beats for one.

Drinking is linked to raised voices and hence the higher decibels in general. Coffee is associated with quieter, subtle, peaceful and more civilized conversation with no eager to jump into brawls bouncers in the vicinity keeping guard.

There aren’t reports of girls being harassed or people beaten up at cafes unlike the frequent free for all at pubs. The coffee kiosks around Delhi and suburb Gurgaon, where I live, are usually brimming with customers through the day till late evening that obviously prompted Starbucks to take the plunge here.

Indian food outlets are either empty or choc-a-bloc with customers.  Business is never steady. It is roaring or none at all.

Popular eateries and sweet shops in areas such as Bengali market, Green Park or Chandni Chowk in Delhi have been around forever and only growing. Multiple generations visit the locations to experience what their grand and great grandparents savored. Similarly the employees also speak about grandfathers or mothers working at the same jobs.

The CCD combos are good value for money – coffee, with sandwich and a chocolate mousse shot – more the merrier for the same amount of cash.

Barista usually has an online offer running. Costa Coffee is priced higher, but offers better ambience and couches.

Young uniformed waiters struggling to speak English fuss about, though they could do equally well by sticking to Hindi. No point trying to portray what you are not unless one is dealing with a foreigner with local language issues.

A sign of success of Indian cafés is the gradual disappearance of couches and love seats. At the most popular value for money CCDs, that have proliferated to almost every city in India, the settees have been replaced by slim wooden chairs with little tables that occupy minimal sitting space, to raise the bum count.

In traveling by Indian Rail terminology, this could translate to a shift from first class to general compartment. Next table conversations are easily audible while e-mails or power point presentations of an adjoining coffee drinker are very readable, if one is so inclined. Yet, middle class India, the main patrons of coffee shops, do not mind the clutter and hubbub as long as basics are met — a place to meet, air conditioning that works, reasonable cleanliness and fair pricing.

In India, there is fierce competition for everything in any case – parking, school and college admissions, making it to a job, rail reservations or even finding standing space in the metro. Most are used to being stuck in traffic jams.

Many are thus content to make it to an empty coffee table, even if it is a bit cramped. It is an achievement. Young couples, getting to know each other better, obviously abound at the Indian cafes. They are much safer here than public places such as parks where they can be hounded by cops, vigilantes, right wingers, touts, the moral police, cell phone and bag snatchers, and others.

A boy and girl out in India are targeted by vested groups desperate to seek attention, make money, exercise muscle power, vent their frustration and envy.

Still, coffee shops do not provide the cover of bushes and trees at a park or even a shrouded pub, should the need arise. But, undisturbed romance can be good at the cafes without risk of being beaten up or mugged.

Given pre-dominant conservative mindsets, Indians shirk from physical intimacy in public, though quick pecks at the cafes are common now. Maybe there will be some smooching too, despite the bright lights. Hope it happens soon.

This article first appeared on the Mocking Indian blog