08 February 2019 14:46:17 IST

Malathy Sriram writes poems and short stories for children and adults, as well as book reviews and articles of general interest. She is a post-graduate in English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. Her work has been published in Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Mirror and Femina. She has edited website content and is the editor of The Small Supplement, an online magazine for children with articles on history, science, arts and culture, sports, technology, companies and brands, mythology and short stories. Reading, teaching English, listening to music (all genres) and singing complete her oeuvre.

Leo Coffee, the taste of tradition

The board ‘PRK Nadar Sons, Coffee Wholesale Merchants’ still hangs outside its first unit in Madras

Humanity is divided into two — those who drink coffee and those who don’t. Interestingly, every coffee lover swears by his or her own brand and specific blend. In Tamil Nadu, Leo Coffee is a popular brand with wide recall.

Origin of the company

Leo Coffee’s origins date back to 1910, when a certain PR Karupiah Nadar from Pattiveeranpatti at the foothills of Palani hills, Tamil Nadu, began buying coffee from European Jesuit missionaries. An agreement, dated 1915, with the British-owned Nilgiris Coffee Traders Company still exists with his family. He soon tasted success and started buying out the estates, finally owning as much as 2,000 acres. The plantations, named Little Flower Estates and Sancta Maria Estates, still remain with the family. He set up his own coffee processing and curing facilities.

His son, PRK Bhaskaran, who followed him into the business, along with his brothers, set up ‘Joseph’s Coffee’, a coffee roasting and grinding unit at Tiruchirappalli in the 1950s. The brand’s success over the next two decades awoke the desire to establish a coffee retailing business in Chennai, then Madras.

Bhaskaran travelled to Madras with the guidance of his mentor, the Archbishop of Madurai Fr John Peter Leonard, after who the brand ‘Leo Coffee’ is named. He bought a house in Mylapore, and converted it into a roasting, grinding and office space and opened a coffee retailing unit nearby in 1971. He brought in employees from his home town to work in the new unit. Insterestingly, brand Leo Coffee still functions out of this very same office. The name board ‘PRK Nadar Sons, Coffee Wholesale Merchants’ still hangs outside the front door.

USP of the fresh roast

The USP for Leo Coffee was, and remains, its quality — from ‘bean to bag’ as they put it — and as word spread about the new coffee shop customers swelled and more outlets were opened. By the 1980s, 15 outlets of Leo Coffee were functioning in Chennai in places such as T Nagar, West Mambalam and Triplicane. The number of outlets kept increasing as the brand grew in popularity.

By 1991, a new manufacturing facility with modern, imported equipment for roasting and grinding was opened at Perungudi. Around this time, Leo Coffee also went in for brand promotion and reportedly roped in AR Rahman, then a budding musician, to compose a jingle for a television commercial. The TV commercial highlighted the ‘traditional’ aspect of the brand, the aroma and taste of Leo Coffee, and became a big hit, while imprinting the brand in public consciousness. This advertisement was said to be the launchpad into the film industry for Rahman and actor Arvind Swamy.

To be faithful to Leo Coffee’s tagline, ‘the pure taste of tradition’, the quality of the product is monitored at every stage, be it in the high standards of cultivation followed, the selection of coffee beans, processing, blending, roasting or grinding.

This coffee brand offers shade-grown coffee berries which have a strong, enhanced flavour. The Leo plantations adopt sustainable cultivation — sans the use of chemicals and pesticides — the coffee plants grow under the trees, stimulating biotic (plants and animals that may act as producers, consumers or decomposers) and abiotic (sunlight, oxygen, soil, water and temperature) processes. These, in turn, facilitate decarbonisation. These estates also yield the premium quality ‘Leo Single-origin Coffee Beans’ that are sold online.

Business expansion

The southern coffee brand’s beans are sourced not just from their estates in Tamil Nadu but also from Coorg, Chikmagalur, Hassan and Kushalanagar in Karnataka. Once sourced, they are processed at a centralised processing, roasting and packing facility. During processing, coffee beans undergo various steps, such as ‘soaking, pulping, fermenting, washing, drying, hulling and grading’, involving specialised equipment and lots of water. To retain the aroma and the taste for a long period, three-layered metallic poly-packs are used for packaging.

Leo Coffee offers both a wide variety of 100 per cent pure coffees and also the chicory mixed coffee categories. The varieties include the filter coffee category Special A, Special Peaberry, House Blend, Special Peaberry plus Special A, House Blend FG, Degree Blend (70:30), Breakfast Blend (60:40) and Leo Coffee Chicory). In instant coffees, there are Leo - Ultimate (pure coffee), Aroma Classic (70:30 - coffee: chicory) and Instant Super Strong (60:40 - coffee: chicory, for the hotel segment). Leo’s insistence on sourcing and serving the best remains undiluted. The most sought after signature blends are Special Peaberry, Special 'A' and House Blend.

Since people who prefer tea outnumber those who imbibe coffee, to make Leo’s presence felt pan-India, it introduced Leo strong tea, consisting of seven varieties of dip tea and two varieties of Assam tea, in 2017. Premium green long leaf and organic green tea were introduced the following year, while other variants are planned for the future.

Today, Leo Coffee has around 40 outlets, 250 SISs (shop-in-shops) in various departmental stores and about 300 distributors in South India and even in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The brand exports to countries like the US, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore and has an online presence, selling its products on Amazon, Snapdeal and eBay and also through its own ‘Leo e-Store’.

Business via e-commerce is just about 1 per cent now but is expected to increase as new products are introduced. Marketing is pursued with vigour via social media platforms and there is even a call centre office responding to queries. Leo Coffee reportedly spends about ₹ 2 lakh a month on digital marketing.

Leo’s coffee clubs

A new concept, the corporate vending machine, was introduced by Leo Coffee to serve genuine filter coffee at workplaces. The latest addition to the Leo bandwagon is the ‘Mylapore Mocha’ café chain, started in 2016, to serve freshly-brewed coffee and other beverages like tea, badam milk and cold chocolate.

India is said to be Asia’s third largest producer and exporter of coffee. With production at 3,16,000 million tonnes in 2018, 70 per cent of coffee is said to have been exported, leaving only 30 per cent to be consumed domestically. South India still leads in coffee consumption. However, experts feel that coffee consumption is set to increase in the coming years and by 2030, Indians might consume all the coffee produced within the country and not leave any for export.

Although 60 per cent of the people prefer instant coffee over the freshly ground filter coffee, many young people have developed a taste for traditional foods, such as millets, cold-pressed oils for cooking, and so on. And coffee is no exception; with the traditional filter storming kitchens in new avatars, stronger flavours seem to be preferred by the youth. It is this market segment that Leo Coffee is eyeing, as the old generation of filter coffee loyalists fades away.