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Communications consultant Namrata Asthana had an idea brewing after her move to New Delhi two years ago. Amazed at how difficult it was to find good roasted coffee beans in India, the sixth-largest coffee producer in the world, she considered setting up her own service. Husband Matt Chitharanjan laughed at first but then considered the years he had spent roasting and grinding his own coffee back in the US. An economist, he didn’t stop to look at the numbers. “It was a project of necessity," he says.

The couple launched www.bluetokaicoffee.com, an online delivery service of roasted coffee, in January, following in the footsteps of two Mumbai-based entrepreneurs.

Former adman and “brewing junkie" Kunal Ross of Theindianbean.com wanted to monetize his shared passions of farming and coffee and kicked off his website in October. After a short course at The Coffee Board of India, Sahil Jatana of www.thecoffeecoach.in conducted more than 50 coffee appreciation workshops and saw an opportunity. “I realized people wanted to brew their own coffee, but didn’t know how or where to buy the equipment," he says.

Home-delivered: Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters sources its cofee from Karnataka.
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Home-delivered: Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters sources its cofee from Karnataka.

Asthana and Chitharanjan roast and grind the coffee at home, while the others employ roasting units in Mysore. All three services offer whole beans and ground coffee, grind beans to specification and dispatch orders within 24 hours. Similar on pricing, Frowner’s ( 350 for 250g) from The Indian Bean is slightly more expensive than The Coffee Coach’s 100% Arabica ( 329 for 250g) and Blue Tokai’s Attikan Estate ( 270).

A love of fresh coffee inspired these business ventures; now the entrepreneurs are hoping to target others like them. Their customers range from ages 26-50 and pursue a wide spectrum of professions, which is not surprising, says Sunalini Menon, CEO of Coffeelab Ltd, Bangalore. Menon has spent more than four decades in the industry, and believes that the roasted coffee market is no longer exclusive to the south Indian filter coffee drinker. The privatization of the coffee industry in 1995 and the subsequent launch of café chains have created an interest in the brewed beverage.

Ross agrees: “If you enjoy cappuccinos in a coffee shop, you will want to make it at home." Jatana says today’s well-travelled Indian, who shops for Starbucks mugs abroad, has realized brewing isn’t rocket science. “He wants to invite others to sample his espresso pod machine." Ross believes some even associate a snob value with roasted coffee. “These are food connoisseurs and particular about ingredients," he says, likening them to single-malt drinkers.

Blue Tokai assumed it would be catering to the non-resident Indian and expatriate market but was surprised by the response. “People from tier II cities like Bikaner, Palampur and Lucknow are writing in," says Asthana. Most customers are brewers who have been unable to find roasted coffee that suits their palate in India. These clients recognize a medium roast over a dark, prefer buying whole beans and request a certified organic product, which currently only Blue Tokai offers.

It’s not just small entrepreneurs who are tapping into this evolving market today. Vejay Anand, president, Coffee Day, says sales of Coffee Day’s premium roasted coffees (Dark Forest, 150 and Mysore Royal, 195 for 200g) and brewing equipment have been “galloping" over the last year and a half. “Tastes evolve, so there is gravitation towards finer coffees," says Anand, adding that CoffeeDay Wakecup, a capsule espresso machine (from 4,449) in the market for six months, has done well.

Catering to the finest markets, Krittivas Dalmia launched Kaffa Cerrado, a range of international single-estate coffee beans, in January 2011. The Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University, graduate felt imported Arabica beans, priced at 1,400 for 250g, would differentiate his brand. “We wanted a premium coffee since we’re targeting the high society," says Dalmia who, in March 2011, introduced Swiss luxury brand Jura’s espresso machines, in the 75,000 to 6 lakh price range.

While Dalmia fine-tunes his business plan, the others are more forthcoming with numbers. Blue Tokai aims to sell 1,000kg coffee in the first year, approximately 4,000 bags of 250g (they’ve had 60 orders so far). Ross, with 400 customers, aims to sell 600 bags a month. Jatana has 110 customers and he’s sold over 120kg of coffee, including 150 customized gift-hampers.

All the entrepreneurs are giving themselves one-five years to break even, which Menon approves of. “Selling coffee online, though now in its nascent stage, could develop into a huge market. But those selling must believe that it will take off, if not today, tomorrow."

Sonal Nerurkar is a freelance writer based in Delhi.

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