Starbucks needs markets like India more than India needs it. Yet Indians prostrate themselves before the Americano, in a city once famous for its Coffee House.
It was the ‘Dress Code: Smart Casuals’ that made me laugh.
I live in Kolkata. I am used to dress codes at its starched clubs — jackets, ties, no sandals, no jeans, no round-neck t-shirts, the list is like a fashion tripwire for the unwary.
But a dress code for a Starbucks launch seemed excessive even for Bhadralok city. What the Starbucks, indeed?
Actually, just the warning, “Please carry the invite for security reasons”, at the bottom of the invite seemed a tad excessive.
It’s the opening of a coffee parlour chain outlet, not a do at the Raj Bhavan!
“But they were checking invites,” said a friend who braved the crowds and went to the opening this week.
Kolkata is taking its Starbucks with utmost Page 3 seriousness. It’s not just coffee. It’s clearly cachet. Cheering people had their cellphones ready for the grand unveiling as the CEO of Tata Starbucks shouted, “Kemon aachho, Kolkata? How y’all doing?” like a rock star at an IPL opening in Eden Gardens. One guest actually wore a gown.
The venue, at a classic heritage mansion in the middle of the city, was packed. There were diplomats in black suits and the city’s beautiful people took selfies and grabbed free finger food. My friend insists he even spotted a disgraced yoga guru in the mix. It was all downward dog from there for him.
For those who love their caramel macchiato, it’s wonderful that Starbucks is here, in three outlets across the city no less, to whip it up. It’s better that some old heritage buildings, instead of being torn down and turned into office towers, are becoming homes to Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafes. But all this frothing and foaming about Starbucks landing in Kolkata feels like just one grande hangover from our deprived socialist days when we wore knock-off ‘Lavis’ jeans and drank Coca-Cola wannabes.
Hello, it’s 2018. India has long liberalised. When McDonald’s came to India in 1996, it felt like a watershed even though a Maharaja Mac was not really a classic McDonald’s burger. It was proof that we were part of some global culture, that we too could live life supersized. Its French fries almost had the taste of faraway freedom. In America, McDonald’s, with their 99 cent specials, were often havens of warmth or air-conditioning for the homeless, their bathrooms kept firmly under lock and key, but in India they were shiny and new with uniformed doormen, places where the children of the well-to-do had birthday parties.
However, it is now more than two decades later. India’s markets have been open for a long time now. This enduring fetishisation of even the coffee grounds of the West is rather embarrassing.
Starbucks is a famous brand, a hugely successful brand. When I lived in California, I went there often. It’s ubiquitous, safe and predictable, has clean restrooms and good Wi-Fi, a perfectly decent place to have a coffee and an almond croissant or a blueberry muffin, maybe meet for some study group, or for a coffee stop while walking the dog on Sunday. But it’s hardly the epitome of cool anymore. The only thing cool about Starbucks is its cool lime refresher with ‘green coffee extract for a boost of natural energy’. It’s about time Kolkata has a few outlets of the world’s third largest food chain but it’s not like the ‘White Mocha Frappuccino’ will be our white knight in shining armour.
I hate to admit it, but even Trump Towers going up in Kolkata is more newsworthy than another Starbucks outlet setting up shop in another corner of the world. The fact is, these days, Starbucks needs markets like India more than India needs it. In 2008, Starbucks cut its expansion plans in the US and soon eliminated 300 under-performing stores. Since then, it’s recovered, added 10,000 physical stores in five years, but its stock price has remained flat over the past three years.
So, it needs the Indias and Chinas where it’s opening a new store every 15 hours.
Yet Indians prostrate themselves before the Americano, as if grateful for Starbucks’ presence in a city once famous for its Coffee House. One made Kolkata unique, the other makes the city part of a cookie-cutter world. The Coffee House coffee might have been mediocre, but the conversations, wreathed in cigarette smoke, were legendary. Manna De sang about the famous adda in the Coffee House. Will a 21st century Bangla band sing about #JoinTheConversation at #StarbucksInKolkata?
Will I go there? Probably. But why be starstruck by Starbucks and H&Ms and Dunkin’ Donuts landing in India? This is not the Beatles coming to India. These brands are successful but hardly the Holy Grail of the consumer revolution. Even though Gucci stores have landed in our malls and KFC does home delivery, are we still that desperate for that phoren feeling?
Or perhaps it’s just us Kolkatans who are so over-the-moon at the newest kid on the block. Perhaps we truly believe we are the forgotten city, living off crumbs of Tagore and Ray. But now Starbucks is finally here and we feel we have made it back somehow on the radar of the big boys. Sure, Mumbai has had it since 2012. Then Pune, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad. But at least we made it ahead of Patna.
And guess what, Starbucks Kolkata has created a ‘Chocolate Ras Malai Mousse’ and ‘Chom Chom Tiramisu’ just for us. They must really love us. And if all this giddy excitement makes us look a little desperate, so be it. Let others vent, we’ll have a Venti please. Let the selfies begin.
Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author.
What a piece of shit ! Degrading kolkata and its people has been the norm these days. Bengali people going abroad , sipping starbucks coffee there and insulting their own city. Take some shame author. Your pen isn’t mightier than any sword.
Starbucks is seriously overrated and it doesn’t deserve the attention it’s getting. I have been in Mumbai all these years and I’ve visited Starbucks only once
I started reading this thinking it will be a well written humorous take in the context of Starbuck’s launch in Kolkata. The only thing I understood was that the author is very knowledgeable about what is available in Starbucks. He thinks it is very cool to make fun of the lesser mortals in Kolkata just because they are excited about the opening of a global brand in their city. And nowadays who cares about what others are wearing!
It really isn’t that deep. A few of My classmates recently opened a cafe in South Kolkata and that opening was met with similar excitement and warmth from strangers(people were dressed in gowns and suits). Yeah sure Starbucks is a big chain but its not about the inferiority of Kolkata but about their enthusiasn especially regarding food. I am not from Kolkata but living here for the last few years I got to admit, this lot is always hyper and active and its wonderful!
Amazing, although i feel the article is well written about the fact that these bands needs us more than we need them as in they shouldn’t come with an attitude of doing a favour by opening an outlet here. However, do not agree with the fact that prople here are excited only because it has arrived at last, there are many brands which has arrived in the city at the same time with rest of the big boys( as u claim them to be). Please learn that Kolkata is the 3rd richest city in India much ahead in GDP than cities like Blore/ Hyd, hence latent entries of Global brands or something else has other sociopolitical implications rather business viability.
I also loved the article very much. It shows how badly we have become mental slave of foren.I remember it’s opening in Mumbai n 2012 bang opposite my office at Horniman circle and I had visited it in Dec 2016.Nothing great except of course Wi-Fi availability and a grand building changing its use from godown to an attractive place.
Brand Managers and Event Team is there to make the opening successful and create a mind registration process in the initial days. The quality and ambience takes it automatically to the next level.
How Kolkata reacted is in line with a Good campaign.
Whether Kolkatans wear gowns to every event or not…this does seem excessive as the author notes. And Starbucks is not even a hugely famous and successful brand anymore in the US – it is just one among many.
People in Kolkata wear gowns to all sorts of places. Because it’s 2018 people pay more attention to their own business than on who is wearing what. I am assuming you were there in person for the launch and not sitting at home anticipating what maybe a suitable article heading to grab people’s attention. If you were actually there, I wish you had concentrated more on your coffee and less on what people were wearing. And what made you think “Indians prostrate themselves before the Americano”! Just because they appreciated good coffee?! And yet you say you will probably go to Strabucks in future as well. You find Trump Tower more news worthy and yet write an article on Starbucks. I started reading this thinking it’s going to be a hilarious take on the Starbucks opening. I am sorry I wasted my time. It’s for baseless criticism like these that Kolkata is looked upon as less developed than other metropolitan cities. Articles like this make me repent freedom of words and press because mindless articles like this also get published and anybody can call themselves journalist and author!
Sandip Roy, you seem really touched. You tried to balance it out but the degradation for Kolakatta and jealousy for Mumbai came out too open. Lol. I get every point you made in here.
I’m a regular at Starbucks and initially when we had studied about it in B School as “the brand”, it was like McD, a huge charm for us. Come Mumbai, and it became a very regular and nothing fancy thing for us.
Between Mad and Starbucks, Starbucks is more TATA than it is STARBUCKS.
Don’t forget the legacy of TATA taking care of people. The restrooms are therefore clean.
H&Ms in the US, surprisingly even ZARA are such cheap clothing brands that I cannot help but pause to think how they the same brands seem to be luxury for us.
Very well written. Hilarious. I think the reality is captured in the last but one paragraph. We are happy that we have at last been noticed by a global giant. Usually big brands now choose their Calcutta launch in their second or third phase of expansion in India, unless they are doing a quiet test launch.
Absolutely loved the piece. Agreed!! I have lived in San Francisco for 6 years and have the same feeling as you do.
Couldn’t agree more.
Checked the locations, very happy Park Mansions is one of them. South City Mall and Acropolis Mall could be anywhere on the subcontinent. As someone who lived in Nizam Palace, studied at St. Xavier’s college, fell in love with a girl whose father had a contact lens clinic on Russell Street, this was the limit of our universe.
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