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When coffee shops turn into offices
Anoothi Vishal in New Delhi | April 12, 2008
Jeet Thayil, poet and writer, might be alarmed at comparisons with Joanne Kathleen Rowling, though it would be impossible not to make at least some superficial ones. If the first of the Harry Potter books was famously completed in Edinburgh's cafes, Thayil's book of poems, These Errors are Correct, that appeared just last month, took shape in a small Barista caf� in New Delhi's Khan Market, a place crammed with toilet-sized real estate with impossibly high rentals and kirana stores incongruously overflowing with expensive foreign goods.
When Thayil wrote his book, the Barista outlet was, as yet, a really tiny place (it has since relocated in the same market to a bigger outlet). The Caf� Coffee Day with its wireless Internet facility had, possibly, not yet arrived on the scene, neither had many others. And those serene first-floor diners that did exist possibly didn't see the mad scramble for plug points and corner seats that they do today -- in the age of "mobile offices".
Writing in cafes may be a writerly, romantic thing to do. For haven't we all dreamt of measuring out our own lives in coffee spoons (preferably in Dublin, but just so in Delhi), penning verse and sentences that will find resonance a century later?
But now, chances are that when you do inevitably stumble upon someone with an open laptop at places such as the Market Caf� in New Delhi, or the Indigo Deli in Mumbai or Koshy's in Bangalore, s/he will not necessarily be engaged in some dreamy, creative pursuit.
Instead, all manner of enterprise seems to have spilled over into what has been till now essentially a leisure zone -- at best, also used for informal meetings -- and that cup of cappuccino, you may say, now supports a huge and growing workforce that cannot or will not be tethered to that piece of real estate that we all recognise as a formal office.
It feels like what one of those TV reporters we all love to lampoon would do -- the ones who thrust a mike in your face and ask, "So how does it feel?" whether it is at a film function or a funeral. I feel just as intrusive as I climb up the rather steep, uncomfortable flight of stairs to the Market Caf�, photographer in tow, for a story that has been chasing us for a while now -- staring us in our faces each time we step out for a latte or single-origin hot chocolate or even a cup of chamomile at a cha bar, and find at the next table a power point presentation, Skype or other voice chats over Internet and the exchange of resumes or marketing spiels.
The brief is to hang out at any of the popular cafes and interview people who are, in effect, using the space as their offices, sitting hours at a stretch, working away over a lot of coffee ("But hey! It's better than drinking too much whisky," the writer Thayil has suggested, himself the beneficiary of many complimentary cups during several months of writing, several hours every day). So here I am, tiptoeing up to several potential subjects with a tentative, "May I interrupt you...?"
Kirat Bhattal and Ria Pawar are young, good-looking and fairly glamorous. You could take them for two ladies-who-lunch who have strayed past their salad hour, chattering about their social lives. But that would be a mistake. Both are regulars, both put in a fair amount of work in these environs.
While Pawar is an entrepreneur -- "I am starting my own NGO that will generate funds from auctions and retail sales and donate to other NGOs" -- and a cookbook writer "writing on global cuisine for Indians", Bhattal is even more surprising. She's, well, an actress in Telugu films and uses this caf�, as well as others in Bangalore and elsewhere, to do things such as sending out portfolios or examining contracts among other things.
"I would otherwise have done these things at home," she says, "but I like it here." For Pawar, there are other attractions as well. The staff is friendly and there's the comfort of being a regular not just here but at Mumbai's Indigo Deli too that she also frequents. "The staff there brings over a slice of the berry cake as soon as I step in. And they always try to save some of it for me."
On a table next to the ladies sits their opposite. Anjum Zaidi is "consultant, corporate affairs" for the likes of Reliance [Get Quote], Religare and Sahara, and has been coming to this caf� for the last one year, for at least two-three hours every day. His laptop is plugged in, sitting on the corner table that's "his", he says, and there are friends that he's meeting today.
Zaidi, the friends jest, comes for the caf�'s Lebanese platter (he would earlier work from hotel coffee shops or lobbies but the many standalones that have now sprouted have made things easier), but, of course, that's not entirely true. I prod him and he admits that "to set up any office would have cost me Rs 50,000 per month, plus tea, coffee, maybe some staff..."
Here, everything is taken care of. He explains he spends about Rs 700-800 per day on beverages and snacks but also likes working out of the caf� because there are fewer interruptions. "There is privacy here(!). In an office, anyone can walk in and find me; here, I choose who to call," he adds.
There are eight electric sockets at the Market Caf�. On some days, the staff suggests, even these are not enough and there are people who queue up to use them. Today, there is a third table where work is on. Bretton Bowne from Washington state has been in India for the last couple of months, researching globalisation and Indian fashion.
She has attended the recent fashion week in Delhi, talked to designers, retailers, and other people from the fledgling industry and now has glossy spreads spread across her table.
"Wi-fi is important," she says, which is why she has shunned another outlet in Hauz Khas that she frequented earlier. "One could go to an Internet caf�, which is cheaper, but this is so much nicer."
Students and professionals spending hours on end in cafes over projects or informal meetings, even recruitment interviews, may be quite the done thing, but even in the US, people working exclusively out of cafes is a new trend (The New York Times reported it just this month).
In India, it seems to be equally fuelled by a number of factors: expensive real estate, increased access to better and cheaper technology and a resulting growth in "consultants", a boom in independent, more affordable F&B outlets, and of course, our changing mores which have made our own Baristas and Caf� Coffee Days the cultural equivalents of Parisian sidewalk cafes or even Friends-type Central Perk.
But in many cases, the propellers of this trend are also the new urban gypsies, people, foreigners frequenting the country and using these spaces as temporary, convenient offices.
A manager at another caf� has told me how he has customers who stay six months abroad, six months in India, the last spent under his roof! And then, there are people like Fiona Caulfield, in the country since 2004, who has written a set of travel guides -- working a lot of times out of cafes in different cities.
"For my writing, I needed a quieter place, one where I could work alone in the night because that's when I write," she specifies, but the meetings and research were done "a lot of times" at places such as the Italian Cultural Centre caf� in New Delhi, Samovar and Indigo in Mumbai, as well as the ever-popular Koshy's in Bangalore, all ideal also because of the "India experience" they offered her.
There are other gypsies too, constantly on the move, who use cafes as veritable oases in unkind, burgeoning metropolises. Kunal Kishore, a young PR executive, says he's hardly set foot inside his formal office these last two months. Instead, you will find him every day at the Unicorn Caf� in the Keane India building, Gurgaon.
"I have a regular plug point there, and a data card, and I make all my presentations there. Ever since one of my presentations went really well, I have become a little superstitious about the place and try to do all my work there."
Kishore's formal office is in Delhi, but in a job that requires constant interactions with clients in the suburbs each day, he seems to be always on the move -- "especially this time of the year when most of our contracts are renewed and new ones acquired".
By stationing himself at the caf� in between meetings, Kishore says he's saving on fuel costs. "My sandwiches and fresh lime never cost more than Rs 200. The minimum I would spend on fuel if I went back to Delhi, on the other hand, would be Rs 300-400 per day," he reasons. That, plus a tiring drive.
Obviously, it is the availability of technology that has made such mobile offices possible -- but in more ways than you think. Riyaaz Amlani, owner of Mocha, a Mumbai-based chain of cafes, himself quite the gizmo freak who will not step out without his favourite toys, has an interesting perspective.
"People tend to feel more isolated because of technology. They could work out of home but come to cafes to feel connected," he says. While some other caf�-owners may complain about tables being occupied and people staying put with just a cup of coffee keeping them company for hours, people like Amlani welcome anyone who steps in.
"Purely as a business argument, the battle now is for the watch of the consumer. Once you have the watch, you will have the wallet too and there are ways of making your space profitable, not necessarily by selling more cups of coffee," he says.
Thayil, the writer, is in Zurich now, working on a novel and a libretto. He's relocated to "an excellent Starbucks with a view of a beautiful old church". He likes working in coffee shops, he explains, to sounds of music, "especially when it's Miles Davis or Frank Sinatra at low volumes", that mixes with the sound of conversation and "it's all very stimulating", he says.
Even without the church or the music though, the new "office" is stimulating enough. This story may even have been written there!