The world’s first ‘fast-food’ co-operative chain is still thriving in Southern India

The Indian Coffee House chain has around 400 branches scattered all over India, but nowhere has as many as Kerala. Here, this venerable institution is run, like Kerala itself, along socialist lines (the state’s communist democracy was born in 1957). Founded by members of the India Coffee Board Worker’s Co-operative Society, the first opened in Thrissur in 1958; at the last count, the state of Kerala boasted over 50 coffee-house outlets.

There are six in and around Kochi — the Malabar Coast port which exports a third of the world’s spices. There are two old fashioned ones in Kollam, the gateway to Kerala’s network of inland backwaters. Our film was shot in Alappuzha (the canal-riven ‘Venice of the East’) where there are at least two more. The flagship is the Maveli, housed in a curious circular tower, like a terracotta helter-skelter, designed by Keralan-based English architect, Laurie Baker, on a site by the station in Trivandum (where there are eight coffee houses). 

They are all different — the architecture and decor varies — yet, in essence, they are the same. In every Coffee House you will find pictures of the Ghandis — Mahatma, Nehru, Indira — hanging on the walls. Pride of place (just behind the cash desk) in every establishment is reserved for a framed portrait of the co-operative’s founder, Comrade A. K. Gopala Krishnan. 

The bearers always wear white cotton uniforms, often a little grubby, and rubber flip-flops; chief bearers wear wide, green felt cummerbunds edged with gold braid and sultan-style turbans. Every Coffee House offers a standard menu of “delicious coffee and caterings”. 

The coffee, served mild and milky, is grown on the plantations of south India’s Nilgiri Hills and the caterings represent the basics of Keralan cuisine, alongside a few meat dishes (traditionally, Kerala is vegetarian) and some colonial-era throwbacks (‘potato finger chips’, eggs on toast, ‘bread toast butter’ and Bournvita). 

The most expensive item on the menu is a chicken biryani at roughly 60p; the cheapest is a vegetable cutlet (10p). The best culinary experience is a Masala Dosa — a paper-thin, rice-flour pancake filled with spiced vegetables and served with sambah (hot curry sauce) and coconut chutney.  

For a longer version of this film (with commentary) go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ps6xQCSM6co

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