Article

The Legacy of V G Siddhartha

By Madhulika Dash

The famous founder of Café Coffee Day (CCD) could have played many roles to new-age entrepreneurial India, but for the masses, he was the other Baba Budan of Coffee – or maybe a little more.

It’s unfortunate to witness a mentor like VG Siddhartha, the brain behind the extremely well-known and loved brand CCD, to die such a (mysterious) death. While speculations are rife as to what could have been the last nail to seal his fate – many industrial specialist and observers refute the debt claim to be the sole reason - for the majority of India (and the entire food world), he would be always remembered for something more indulging and revolutionary: coffees and café.

Let’s face it: CCD, which debuted in namma Bengaluru in 1996, didn’t just change the way coffee – which till then was divided between the steamed-froth coffee (today called the shaadi wala coffee), filter coffee, instant coffee and that bitter-white expensive coffee served in the hotel – was viewed but also cafes.

Contrary to the many Indian Coffee Houses of the time, CCD was one stylish, air-conditioned informal place that combined the vibrancy of a café – it was our very own Central Perk - with a stunning range of coffee menu that one would find across the world but tailor-made to the Indian palate. Yes, there was the cappuccino that had the bitter taste, but more acceptable; the latte had versions of vanilla, toffee and hazelnut; and the list of cold coffees literary made the neighbourhood ice cream coffee version seem like a compromise. But V G Siddhartha didn’t stop at personalizing coffee – one had the option to add whipped cream, ice cream and even three different kinds of chocolate syrup along with sugar options of the brown and white – he also introduced the first coffee paired menu that is followed by many leading coffee cafes today. Be it the cleverly marketed samosa-cappuccino treat, the famous chocolate chip cookie- latte indulgence or the iconic pairing of chocolate fantasy with Mocha or Café Americano. In fact, the famous brownie sizzler remains an iconic CCD creation that many have emulated but not to the success of the brand.

Call it the key of being a market leader or a marketing whiz, Siddhartha upped the game with his first artisanal coffee blends offering that was created from the export quality coffee in his estate in Chikkamagaluru.

In a market that was ruled by instant coffee made by Bru and Nestle then, CCD's offering stood out. It had the rich aroma, taste and all the information that made Indians understand the nuances of a good Arabica or Robusta. And there were levels to graduate to since they were available both in bean form and fine ground. His in-shop-shop concept allowed patrons to have a complete coffee experience with brewers, mugs and the entire merchandise created for a complete coffee experience.

By 2000, CCD with its myriad offering of a cool and happening place, Siddhartha’s tagline of a lot can happen over coffee was coming true. CCD became a place that was both affordable and aspirational. It was a meeting place for the corporate, friends and others the café that gave them the next goal to achieve with its new coffee menus and of course the coffee merchandise. The masterstroke, of course, was Siddhartha doing all of it at a price that was conducive to the Indian mind and pocket – the basic cappuccino was prized at Rs 40 and a meal would come in Rs 100 tax included. In one sweep, CCD had killed not only its standalone competition (Barista and the neighbourhood coffee house) but beat hotels in their own game. It offered better tasting, aromatic coffee in a cool place – they brought the first Vegan Shake and even changed some of their coffee for those with lactose intolerant. The change was exactly what the India of 2000 was looking for. Plus, it introduced the concept of co-working space with internet offered for free.

The magic formulae along with standardized coffee recipes and an R&D team back in Bengaluru that did little much than creating about 40 new recipes a month for their menus and customizing it for the larger palate from North to South made CCD for coffee what McDonald had become worldwide for delicious fast food – the difference, CCD continued evolving and expanding.

By 2009, CCD to much happiness upped his game again by creating the suave looking, slightly expensive-looking CCD Lounge. The offering here was upscaled to draw in the high-income earning individual too. Many saw the change as a natural progression for a change whose first format had gone mass-value, only the forward-thinking Siddhartha knew the competition it was against - Starbucks that debuted in India in 2012 supported by the Tata Group. It would prove to be CCDs biggest rival in metropolitan at least. It did.

But by then, the shaadi wala coffee-loving India had graduated to knowing their coffee well – and by that we didn’t mean knowing our espresso to cappuccino to flat white, we knew the nuances: we knew the smoothness of Aruku coffee, the sweeter mild side of Robusta and of course the aromas of a Coorgi Arabica to one coming from Chikkamagaluru.

CCD had become our school for coffee – and V G Siddhartha the modern-day Baba Budan and a legend. 100 years from now anyone writing on coffee in India will accord V G Siddhartha the same accolade that Iran gives to Suleiman The Magnificent for Turkish Coffee – both took something that existed and turned them into a popular brew.