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Nation of Chai Drinkers, Embraces Coffee Culture



For coffee-shop regulars across India, Starbuck’s plans to enter the Indian market will be hailed as a pleasant development. In a culture formerly accustomed to having the day punctuated at regular intervals by steaming cups of “chai,” urban Indians took to the coffee shop culture with great gusto. Since the late ‘90s when Indian coffee shop chains first began to open in every city neighborhood, the coffee shop has worked its way into the Indian way of life.
Though some might still prefer drinking tea while at home, the plush sofas, casual setting, pop music and free Internet have attracted many. Sarika Desai, 31, is a fashion designer and entrepreneur who frequently conducts her business meetings at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. “I normally drink the Moroccan mint tea since I don’t really enjoy the coffee,” said Desai, who spends approximately 2,000 rupees, or about $40, each week at cafés. “I come here for the comfortable environment, wireless connectivity, central location and the quality of food.”
“Earlier, people in the city met for paan or ice-cream post-dinner,” Desai said. “Now people say – ‘let’s meet for coffee’– it’s part of the new parlance. My 19-year old brother drinks tea at home, but frequently meets his friends at Café Coffee Day.” Growing up, watching re-runs of “Friends” on television, young urban Indians congregate naturally at cafés – where the coffee served has little to do with the appeal. The most popular drinks at chains like Café Coffee Day are often not traditional coffee, but things like the iced chocolate mocha and flavored lemonade that cater to the Indian penchant for sweets.
While coffee shops such as Barista and Cafe Coffee Day serve only a small percentage of the population because of their high prices, traditional Indian coffee shops in cities like Dellhi and Kolkata are still serving up hot cups of coffee for Rs 10. Filled with an older generation mulling over the days news over coffee, these coffee houses are now struggling to attract a younger audience who prefer their newer, snazzy counterparts – and are willing to pay the premium. “I like going to cafés for the ambience, nice seating, you can watch football matches there with friends,” said Umang Khagram, a 20-year-old engineering student who spends $3 each week at coffee shops. “It’s a place to chill outside of the house.”
India has seen an explosion in cafes and restaurants over the last decade thanks to its growing middle class and a large youth population – about half of Indians are 25 or younger. John Culver, the president of Starbucks business in Asia, said it was the growth of that market that convinced the company to finally commit to India after considering it for nearly a decade.
Though Barista, (now Barista Lavazza) was considered the most popular coffee chain when they first opened stores all across India in 1997, they were overtaken by Cafe Coffee Day which, with its lower price point and large variety of frappes and sweet drinks, caters to Indian preferences. Today Cafe Coffee Day is by far the most ubiquitous coffee chain across Indian metros.
Dikshita Shukla, a professional working in the advertising industry, finds that most working people go to the nearby Café Coffee Day just for a change from the office environment. “Coffee is just an excuse. You’ll often see a table with four people, with maybe one dessert and one drink ordered. It offers a less-expensive venue to meet than a proper restaurant.” “The Indian coffee market has yet to come of age – as off now, coffee is all sugar and milk and Nescafe,” says Aniruddha Barua, 25, a real estate analyst based in Mumbai, whose preferred drink is a double espresso. “Coffee shops probably make a very small part of their revenue from selling actual coffee.”
However, urban high school students have grown accustomed to gathering in coffee shops as part of their social life. “We come here every day after school, for at least a few hours,” says Kanak Somani, a student at Mumbai’s Jamnabai Narsee School, referring to a Costa Coffee in her school’s neighborhood. “Almost everyone orders a cappuccino. We drink so much coffee, it doesn’t really help us stay awake anymore,” says Somani, 18, who spends about $10 each week at cafés.  “I would be super-excited about a Starbucks in town – I love their Frappuccinos.”

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