Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Café culture

The funnest, most interesting cities around the world are characterised by their cafes and their café culture. Paris is famous for its sidewalk cafés, as are most other “happening” cities the world over. And now, with globalization and changing lifestyles, the café culture has arrived in India, and looks all set to stay.

It was not that long ago that going out with friends meant having to sit at the nearest Udipi joint, and ordering one dosa at a time to increase the length of time that you could sit there without getting dirty looks from the management and the waiters. Even that didn’t work for very long, and soon a bill was, very pointedly, left at your elbow. The message was clear. Time to go. So if you wanted to sit around for hours of gappe, there wasn’t really a place for you back then.

Then cable TV arrived and people became a lot more familiar with the concept of “hanging out” through shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S. the concept of the coffee shop also crept into the collective Indian subconscious, especially of the young, cool and hip set. As public awareness and interest increased, so did investor interest. It began as bakery cafes, with bake shops putting in a few tables and serving basic coffee, with inbuilt milk and sugar, as long as you ate some of their bakery and confectionary products.

These soon expanded their menus, and the kinds of coffees they served, to include some snacky fast food items and cappuccinos. And then the market exploded. Barista opened the first real Café or Coffee Bar in India, in Delhi in February 2000, and it was an instant hit. In fact, the combination of chill-out space, good coffee, and not-so-bad food became such a phenomenon that many others, large and small, rushed into the fray. Pretty soon, most cities sprouted cafes, on the sidewalk or otherwise, like mushrooms in the rains.

These places gave the youth, and others, the one thing India had lacked before. These cafes provided a comfortable place to hang out, with good music, where no one asked you to leave, and where you could eat and drink interesting things, without having to spend as much money as a meal in a restaurant would cost you. The idea took off, and pretty soon everything from office and support group meetings, to birthday and kitty parties were happening at the nearest café.

Now, cafes have ventured into merchandising – you can pick up a Barista coffee mug, a Café Coffee Day placemat set, or a Mocha hookah – and events – Mocha for example holds shows for film clubs. They’ve also discovered the efficacy of product placement in films as an advertising avenue. So now a scene in a Hindi film can easily have the characters sitting in, getting in and out of, or talking about any of these café chains. In short, café culture is really here to stay!

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