‘It’s not about the coffee. It’s about the coffee house’ … the first Indian outlet of Starbucks in Mumbai.
Starbucks has just opened its first store in India, in central Mumbai. Days after the opening, Mumbaikars, mostly the young, were still queuing for up to an hour to grab their Frappuccinos, while madly updating their Facebook statuses. Social commenters are bemused by the lemming-like flood. “Best coffee? No way. It’s all about feeling foreign and upper class,” sneered one sceptic. “Two decades after liberalisation, you’d imagine India’s young ‘uns would be jaded enough to shrug off the entrance of yet another global chain” mused popular website Mumbai Boss. “When can you say you went to the opening of the first ever Starbucks?” tweeted one unabashed groupie.
Me, I am somewhere in the middle. Starbucks is not our coffee messiah and deserves no genuflections. True, India is mainly a tea-drinking nation. However, southern India has always had a vibrant coffee culture. For many Indian taste buds, including mine, nothing beats strong frothy “filter” coffee from Coorg, India’s premier coffee producing area. As one commenter on the Guardian website rightly pointed out, you can get excellent coffee on every street corner for less than a few rupees.
However, coffee snobs are missing the point entirely. The Indian yuppie does not want to stand on a street corner, however good the coffee. Most streets here are awash with sewage, garbage and gaping manholes, so why would he or she? Sure, there are also plenty of darshinis and dhabas (basic cafes and teahouses) across India, where you can get excellent coffee or chai for a few rupees, and be in and out in less than 10 minutes. But the potential Starbucks customer doesn’t want that. That’s what their daddy drank.
What he or she wants is a clean, quiet, comfortable, air-conditioned space, to work, meet friends or linger for hours, no questions asked. Such hangouts are scarce in India, and with the urban chaos outside, boy, do we need them. India’s women, desperately short of safe public spaces, want to sit by themselves without being leered at, as they might be in dhabas. India has an estimated 200 million people between 18 and 25. The young, who usually live with extended families in cramped houses, want to chat, date and escape their prying parents. The growing number of entrepreneurs who work from home are looking for venues to network and meet clients. And everyone – absolutely everyone – will be looking for that scarcest of commodities in India: a clean toilet. It’s not about the coffee. It’s about the coffee house.
Starbucks’ biggest competition is the local chain Cafe Coffee Day, which has 1,350 cafes across the country. I remember when it set up shop in India 16 years ago. There was no coffee culture then; if you wanted to chat over coffee you had to do it in a posh hotel. “No one will ever pay 50 rupees (about 57p) for a bad cup of coffee,” scoffed many sceptics. Well, they could and they did, even as prices soared to 150 rupees or more. Suddenly, for many young Indians, hanging out over coffee became cool.
Can Starbucks replicate this? Hard to say for sure, but it’s off to a good start by sourcing its coffee locally, in a tie-up with Indian giant Tata Coffee. Much will depend on whether it can set up stores in the right locations, like CCD has done in airports and railway stations. Starbucks has huge brand recall in India. Many of us grew up watching movies like Sleepless in Seattle and shows like Frasier, secretly wishing we too could be rich and thin and sip skinny lattes all day.
Is Starbucks elitist? Yes, certainly. Most of India can’t afford even 85 rupees for a basic cup of brewed coffee, much less the 200-rupee caramel frappucino. Starbucks can’t compete with the darshinis. But then they don’t have to. Darshinis and dhabas will flourish, just as they have always done, and so will posh coffee chains. In a nation of one billion, there’s room for everyone, so why can’t Indians choose for themselves?
I plan to brew my first filter coffee of the day at home, as I always have. But I might pop into Starbucks for a second cup with friends or clients. I expect to have plenty of company.