Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Indian Coffee House - Connaught Place

This article appeared in The Hindu Serving a legacy - The Hindu
Read the unedited version here....

Indian Coffee House – Delhi – India’s first home grown chain of coffee house turns 60

Today, CCD, Costa Coffee, Starbucks and other such franchise outlets are the order of the day. Long time before these became “in” and fashionable, a chain of home grown coffee shop established itself as one run by the common man for the common man. Though there was nothing common about it as it was patronised by the literally who’s who of Delhi be it politicians, journalists, economists, thinkers, activists (perhaps they considered themselves as common then!)  Run purely on a cooperative basis, it established itself as a joint for excellent coffee and snacks. The outlets served no lunch, breakfast routine but served tiffin or snacks the same item throughout the day. There was excellent South Indian coffee with a couple of variations, idli, dosa, vada, sandwiches, toast….The word spread and it soon became a popular adda for anyone and everyone. The hallmark of cooperative movement, there were no workers or managers, everyone worked shoulder to shoulder. The year was 1957 and the date was October 27th. The place, 10 U B Bunglow Road, Jawahar Nagar.  Following its success, a branch was opened at Janpath in 1964. Soon it was allotted space by NDMC at the Central Portion where Palika Bazar stands today. Here it really soared given the ideal location.  

In Delhi, the Indian Coffee Houses tasted success and started operating canteens all over Delhi in various Government offices. It also opened branches across North India, now there are around 10 outlets in the North. The canteen was frequented by Raj Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia amongst others.  There are stories of how in the early 70s before Emergency, a van from Indira Gandhi’s residence would come to pick up idli, vada, sambhar and coffee for visitors and functions regularly. Then for a rupee, one could get vadas, idli and coffee to boot!

This was demolished during the Emergency. The Indian Coffee House was also operating at Mohan Singh Place since 1969. When the Connaught Place outlet was demolished without advance notice, it was forced to shift the entire operation to its current place, Mohan Singh Place. Most regulars swear after that it could never regain its erstwhile glory. A little sign on the outside of Mohan Singh Place proclaims, Indian Coffee House.
Mohan Singh Place is known for its excellent economical denim jeans made within few hours. The Indian Coffee House is located at the top floor of the building with a lift. The space is clean quite nice almost like a canteen.

So what started this cooperative chain of coffee houses?  One can go back to the heady days of cooperative movement when this venture was thought of as a measure for retrenched workers to find employment. As Narayanan Kutty, an old member of the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative  says, “In the year 1957, the Coffee Board decided to close down its propaganda department  and close down its Coffee Houses. The late Com.A.K.Gopalan, leader of the Coffee Board Labour Union and late Smt.Subhadra Joshi, M.P, the late Pt.Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India,  all of them advised the retrenched employees of the Coffee Board to form their own  co-operative societies.   The retrenched employees welcomed this idea and form their own cooperative societies known as Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society Ltd. The first was formed in Delhi.”

P D Pradeep, Manager, who has grown from the ranks says, “anyone who joins the establishment as a worker has to go through the rank and file starting with lowest. This ensures no one is a boss but everyone is a worker. So when there is a shortage of hands, it is not uncommon to see Managers chip in shoulder to shoulder.” The liveried bearers remind one of Railway dining halls.. Pradeep says, “everything is made fresh. We do not buy off the shelf masals but make everything from scratch.” The coffee powder is procured from the neighbouring India Coffee Board. In other parts though, the chain procures beans from Wattal, in Wayanad. This is roasted and powdered in house for use. Filter coffee decoction is brewed in a huge steel coffee filter. For sambar, the spices are roasted and ground and no sambar powder is used. Coconut chutney is made using fresh grated coconut with roasted chana dal, ginger, green chilli. As I speak to Pradeep, there is sense of pride of being a part of such a cooperative spirited venture. This is a sense I have got from people who were and have worked in establishments run on a cooperative basis.

Pradeep tells me the interesting formula worked out by the establishment, “1 kilo of rice and 250 gms urad dal without husk gives 35 dosas. Similarly 1 kg of potato with 1/2 kg onion gives masala for 18 dosas, 1 kilo rice and ½ kg urad dal makes 50 idlis and 1 kilo of urad dal gives around 50 – 55 vadas.” Any variation, the cook is taken to task. The reason if it is more, it means quantity is wasted, if lower then the customer is short charged.” Amul butter is used for butter dosa and Amul cheese for the sandwich. The prices are still common man like.   

The Indian Coffee House reflects another era where unity of people under cooperative banner to build business and the country was paramount. They are still relevant in today’s world where Amul gives the best of MNCs a run for their money. A little more effort, a little more care, more vision…the Indian Coffee House could be pioneering coffee chains not only in India but even abroad!