Started in 2010, Madras Coffee House now has 85 outlets and counting.

How Chennais Madras Coffee House thrived in a city known for its filter coffee
news Food Saturday, December 05, 2020 - 10:20

When Prasanna Venkatesh and M Kumaaravelan met in 2008, the former was a medical representative while the latter was running a hotel in Koyambedu. Prasanna had always been interested in the food business, and approached Kumaaravelan with a deal to sell lime sodas in his hotel. Though the plan never went through, it struck a friendship between the two, which ultimately brewed into something much more meaningful — Madras Coffee House.

In a country where the thirst for chai is said to far exceed a love of coffee, the story — and success — of the coffee-only beverage chain is unique. Started in 2010, Madras Coffee House has grown to 85 outlets across the country, including Gurgaon, Noida and Mumbai. The duo preferred to set up shops in office spaces, rather than residential or market areas. Most Madras Coffee House outlets are essentially modelled as fast-food eateries — no seating, and one or two round ‘darshini-style’ steel tables outside the kiosk, on which customers can place their dabara and tumbler sets filled with steaming hot coffee, while engaging in short conversations. Customers place their orders at the counter, pay and take the coffee themselves, unlike the legacy models of Indian Coffee Houses and Udupi restaurants, where servers bring the order to the tables.

And the outlets are easy to spot, with a splash of red paint and white lettering for the logo.

“The name was a happy accident,” says 36-year-old Prasanna in a phone interview. “When the deal to open our first ever outlet in Express Avenue mall came through, the manager there told us to give him a few name options. We (Prasanna and Kumaaravelan) gave them and left out of town for some work. We came back to Chennai around a week after the outlet opened and that’s when we realised the name the manager had picked,” he recalls.

While Chennai-born-and-bred Kumaaravelan, 56, is a veteran in the hospitality industry with around 25 years of experience, Prasanna is relatively new but very enthusiastic about the food business. Originally from Madurai, Prasanna had managed a small tiffin shop part-time when he was a student at the Sourashtra College in the city. After chancing upon Kumaaravelan’s acquaintance in 2008, the duo kept in touch and when an opportunity arose, Kumaaravelan remembered Prasanna. 

"He got an opportunity to set up a small canteen inside an Information Technology company in Chennai. So he passed it on to me. That didn’t succeed but it pointed me in the right direction. After a while, Kumaaravelan also joined me in the business," Prasanna recollects.

Coffee in India has its earliest traces in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru, where a Muslim saint planted coffee seeds he had managed to smuggle from Yemen in the early 17th century. Coffee-growers expanded in numbers, as did interest in export, and by the 20th century, the beverage had become popular in the southern states of the country — Andhra Pradesh (including present-day Telangana), Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, though interest in the beverage is still largely limited to these regions.

Coffee has historically been more expensive than tea, and hence only the affluent were able to afford it. In his book In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History, Professor AR Venkatachalapathy says that unlike tea, which can be brewed in water, coffee could be brewed only in milk, which made it unaffordable to many. It also became a staple at Tamil brahmin households, where it was served in a traditional dabara-tumbler set whose specific design (outward curve of the tumbler rim to pour the beverage directly into the mouth without having to sip it) points to severe caste discrimination practised in the society.

However, Indian Coffee House, established in the 1950s, helped spread coffee across the country. Soon a range of restaurants — from Brahmin hotels, Udupi restaurants to Saravana Bhavans and Adyar Ananda Bhavans — started serving filter coffee as part of their menus.

In due course, filter coffee became synonymous with Chennai. And amidst several legacy players that also sell filter coffee, Madras Coffee House has managed to set itself apart from the pack.

"The competition for exclusive filter coffee places is very low in Chennai. I wouldn't call Saravana Bhavan or any other restaurants as competition since people who go there to dine, take coffee," Prasanna says. He adds that the exclusivity of Madras Coffee House to one product has made them a fan favourite, though customers visiting Madras Coffee House outlets can also expect to find a few snacks on their menus -- sundals, samosas and if they are lucky, banana flower vadais. They also sell their own brand of coffee powder, if customers want to replicate the drink in the comfort of their own homes.

In their 10-year-long journey serving filter coffee, a few memories have made Kumaaravelan and Prasanna grateful to their loyal fanbase.

In one of the duos' favourite memories, a customer approached them at a food court and thanked them out of the blue. “He told us we were providing very good coffee and that it was a stress-buster for him and many of his colleagues. He wished us best and left,” adds Prasanna. That they get invited to the annual parties by their franchise partners also makes them happy, he says.

Madras Coffee House was voted the ‘Best Food and Beverage Chain in Chennai’ by the city’s residents, and the brand received an award for the same in the 2018 edition of the ‘Heroes of Chennai’ event. ‘Heroes of Chennai’, an initiative by DreamCraft Events, recognises people and organisations that inspire and create a powerful impact in their domain and symbolises the ‘Spirit of Chennai’. It selects the winners based on a mix of jury selection and audience participation.

They now have three outlets each in Gurgaon and Noida. When asked how the reception of south Indian filter coffee has been in north India, Kumaaravelan says that ‘authentic’ filter coffee always has takers, irrespective of location. “In fact, I visited our first outlet in Gurgaon six months after its inauguration and I saw that around 60 customers were having coffee. The outlet was outside a food court and was a non air-conditioned space. The food court didn't have a crowd that afternoon, but the coffee shop did. I guess real products will always have customers," he says.

The Madras Coffee House team recently started an exclusive outlet for teas named ‘Chaya Maaya’ and is also hopeful of expanding the coffee business to Tier 2 cities in the country and abroad. 

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