Covid-19: What’s the fate of the city’s vibrant cafe culture?
While it would be too early to rue the death of the cafe culture and we are oh-so-craving those long adda sessions over hot cuppas at our fave brew spots, we could safely say that it is under serious threat, thanks to the virulent virus that rages on.
Friendships and new love brewing over a hot cup to WFC (working from cafe!) over endless cups of your favourite brew, and those out-of-office meetings with colleagues... cafes mean much more than just coffee and nibbles. More so, for the millennials. The coffee, of course, helps seal the deal. Be it espresso, latte or cold brew made from single origin coffee or coffee blends, coffee can brighten up a gloomy day. A survey conducted by the Italian coffee roasters brand Lavazza reveals that 60 per cent millennials rely on coffee to keep themselves happy and 69 per cent millennials and
Gen-Z think of coffee as their companion. Coffee is a way of life with cafes enabling the process. Good food and ambience are the bonus.
However, a cafe as we know it, may not be the same in the wake of the pandemic. The thriving and vibrant cafe culture that the city had been witnessing since the last couple of years, is probably going to give way to a new normal at the cafes.
As the lockdown restrictions have slowly started easing, city cafes have started opening doors for takeaways, deliveries and some for dine-in as well. Cafe owners are rethinking their approach and redesigning their cafe and format to fit the new requirements and ensure safety of the staff and customers.
Exactly a year since its entry into the city after having made its mark in Hyderabad, Roastery Coffee House (RCH) is all guns out in its ‘survival mode’. “We opened our outlets for delivery in Hyderabad and Calcutta on May 1 and 19 respectively. We then opened our Calcutta outlet for dine-in on June 8. Even though it probably isn’t worth opening because the sales are very low — 10 to 15 per cent, with whatever money we are earning the burn rate is going down. In Calcutta, the market has been unresponsive. Anyway, this year is about basic survival and health,” said Nishant Sinha, founder of Roastery Coffee House.
Urvika Kanoi of The Daily cafe, on the other hand, doesn’t see dine-in as an option yet. “To me, it makes no sense to open (for dine-in) right now. The paranoia is very real and until the fear settles down, I am going to wait it out,” said the chef-owner. The Daily, which completes one year next month, is going to celebrate with new launches like a new section called The Daily Pantry. “Ideally, we would have wanted to celebrate with our customers but since we can’t, we decided to do these. The pantry has something absolutely new — marinated meat sealed safely inside a vacuum package. I also decided to bring some signatures back that people were really wanting to eat,” said Urvika who turned her south Calcutta cafe into a quarantine zone for her staff, with chairs and tables making way for folding beds.
Sienna Store & Cafe, which has been a melting pot for adda, food and creativity, shut shop even before the lockdown was announced. It then started its delivery service with a handful of employees. The cafe’s focus now lies on a limited delivery and takeaway-only menu with its signature dishes. “Our challenge will be to keep contactless interactions and relationships with those customers who we used to exchange friendly chats and bear hugs with almost every day,” said Shuli Ghosh, co-founder of Sienna Store & Cafe. The inability to smile at guests due to the rigour of wearing masks and face shields, is also a reason of concern for Potboiler Coffee House’s Sonali Lakhotia. “We are always known for our warm service but now, even if we are smiling you won’t be able to see it. So, that warmth will be missing,” said the proprietor.
Potboiler opened doors for delivery and takeaway on June 15 and plans to start its dine-in operations by June-end. Sienna, however, isn’t going to offer its dine-in service yet. “We have to downsize our big dreams and reimagine Sienna in this new context. We do not want to reach a place where we have to consider closing shop,” said Shuli.
Two-and-a-half-year-old Artsy — Coffee & Culture’s founders have come up with a plan that fits the new requirements and includes a drive-by facility where guests can choose to sit in the comfort of their cars. “While delivery of food seems to be an obvious tangent, it isn’t why we put our blood, sweat and tears into building our brand. A cafe with a unique experience like ours can’t be sustained as a cloud kitchen only,” said co-proprietor of the cafe, Manjyot Kaur, who like the others in her industry, fears losing the business altogether.
Some are testing waters at the moment and taking each step cautiously. “Our cafe can accommodate 19 people but sadly we can only have about four to five people at a time now. I want to see how it goes for a month. But right now it’s looking better,” said Sneha Singhi, the chef-owner of Paris Cafe, which is currently operating out of its Ballygunge outlet, while the other two remain shut.
Franziska Oppel of Patisserie by Franziska has started an independent transportation system to ensure that their delicate, temperature-sensitive pastries and cakes get delivered with utmost care. “Initially, we tried several delivery options but it became clear that we would have to do our own delivery and couldn’t rely on third-party delivery services if we wanted to maintain our quality,” said Franziska.
Considered to be one of the pioneers of the third wave coffee movement in India with multiple outlets in various cities, Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters has come up with an app for easing out the process of delivery and pick-ups. “We have changed all our cafes to a self-service model to promote contactless service as much as we can. We have developed a Blue Tokai pre-ordering app which makes it convenient for a customer to place and pick up orders in a contactless, speedy manner whether they are taking away or dining in,” said co-founder Shivam Shahi, who thinks that the “new normal” is already here with major changes in the cafe culture. “I think the biggest challenges that we see lying ahead has to do with the uncertainty. Since the lockdown has been lifted, we have started opening more cafes and dine in-services but we’re already starting to see some cities go back to lockdown. This pattern is something we expect to see more of,” said Shivam. Blue Tokai fans in Calcutta will have to wait for their turn as they are yet to start operations fully here. “We are currently working on restarting our dine-in at our Calcutta cafe next week,” added Shivam.
A little sliver of sunshine
Some in the business are counting their blessings for being able to bring a little bit of cheer to people’s lives. Just like the five-year-old, always buzzing 8th Day Cafe & Bakery. “I think reopening 8th Day (Cafe & Bakery) has been able to bring folks a sense of hope and a slow return to normalcy. As an entrepreneur, I am always thinking about my staff, guests, and greater community first and foremost. I believe this is the heart and soul of entrepreneurship,” said the founder-owner of the cafe, Grant Walsh, who is currently in the United States with his family. For a business that considers itself being driven by values and a sense of community, 8th Day Cafe & Bakery believes in staying true to its essence and being positive in its approach. “Bringing the best coffee, American food, and exceptional service — all embedded in love — remains our foundation and core. You can tinker with things, but never forget who you are,” added Grant.
Sharing Grant’s sense of positivity is Rajesh Singh of Flurys. “Guests availing dine-in service has reduced compared to pre-Covid times. However, with every passing day the number of guests visiting Flurys, Park Street, and other outlets as well, has only been increasing steadily. That’s very promising indeed! We started getting guests for breakfast from Day 1 since we resumed operations,” said the director of the iconic brand.
What happens to the adda & co-working?
The post-pandemic world is certainly going to be full of uncertainties and this isn’t going to be particularly easy for home-grown brands. “The traditional idea of ‘adda’ in Calcutta is being challenged right now and businesses like ours will not be as busy as they were before the pandemic. Lazing peacefully in a cafe is a distant dream at the moment. Do you really want to go to your favourite neighbourhood cafe, practically suffocated with masks, gloves, face shields and the like, eat in isolation, with dividers between you and the family next to you? Sounds like a kind of dismal dystopia that so many will find uncomfortable and scary. This new normal is dismal and will change how Calcuttans interact with each other considerably,” said Shuli.
While most cafe-goers are hopeful that they will be back to their favourite spots sooner or later, they are aware that it may not be the same again. “I have always loved the cafe culture. Sienna and 8th Day (Cafe & Bakery) are some of my faves in the city. I have spent hours alone, reading or writing in Sienna,” said model Ushoshi Sengupta, who is never going to take a cup of coffee with a friend for granted again! If Ushoshi loved her “quiet between the chaos” in cafes, for Priyanka Rati Pal, it was the ambience and a good old cold brew. “I love the ambience at Roastery (Coffee House). It’s so peaceful there. Last year, I visited the cafe almost every week,” said the actress.
Cafes never fit in a single box. They weren’t just about the coffee or spending leisure time only. They also served as co-working spaces where people worked out of, often equipped with Wi-Fi and charging points. City-based photographer Kasturi Mukherjee who doesn’t have her own office, prefers working out of cafes. “Since I don’t have a home-office yet, I often prefer meeting clients/models at cafes. These are open spaces with food and music. We can socialise and have a work meeting simultaneously. Now everything is done over a Zoom call. I definitely miss doing all of that,” said Kasturi. Echoing Kasturi’s words was a millennial coffee-lover. “The cafe culture has become an integral part of my life whether I am brainstorming over a tune or just soaking in the vibe that each cafe gives out. I also miss going out on coffee dates,” said Aniket Dutta, drummer in the city-based band ARC Project.
The city cafes are leaving no stones unturned to ensure that they are up and running but they aren’t oblivious to the horrors that come with it. “Would you want to go to a place on a Saturday night where people are serving you in gloves and masks?” asked Urvika. “People’s visits now will be way more timed. People will prefer working out of home now and not cafes, which had become really popular. We are trying to bring us to you than you to come to us. That’s the new normal,” said Urvika.
The near future seems bleak but some say it’s too early to have the answers yet. “What the virus has done is that it has created a fear and this fear isn’t going away anytime soon. The cafe culture is not going to be the same but I don’t have the right answer yet,” said Nishant who is finding hope and optimism in the growing home-brewing segment. Some like Manjyot are holding on to hope. “We would hopefully like to go back to the pre-Covid culture, as it was hard-earned and well deserved. Calcutta’s coffee culture has been the result of many cafes really putting their heart and soul into every cup. I hope the new normal is hygienic and cautious but with a cup of coffee in hand,” said the ever-smiling Manjyot.