Colombo’s Coffee Culture

By Maryam Azwer and K. Prashanthie, Sundar Leader

Colombo’s Coffee CultureCoffee shops have been mushrooming around Colombo at an alarming rate, but does this mean that coffee is now the city’s favorite beverage? Not necessarily, as The Sunday Leader learnt this week.
While a certain number of those who frequent coffee shops do so for the coffee itself, many visit coffee shops for a variety of reasons – including, but not limited to, the other beverages on offer (most involving chocolate), the food, or simply the atmosphere.
“I love coffee, and I’d go to a coffee shop any time for a good coffee. Also, I don’t like to go alone, I usually like to chat with somebody while I’m having my coffee,” says Sonali, who has lived abroad, and returned to Sri Lanka to find a variety of coffee shops to her liking. “I find it’s a nice way to relax,” she explains.
Unlike Sonali, Shivathi doesn’t need company to enjoy her coffee. “Iced coffee is my favourite and I will walk around till I get my brand of iced coffee float, if I don’t have it, it will not make my day,” she says.
Some have other reasons for visiting coffee shops. “From what I’ve seen, people rarely go to these places for the coffee itself. They sometimes order food, or some other beverage, like hot chocolate. Most of the time, people just go to coffee shops to hang out,” says Thilina, a photographer who admits that he himself has ordered coffee only once in all his visits to coffee shops. “I mostly visit coffee shops to meet people, or for the food. I find the beverages, in general, are pricey.” Either as classy venues for business meetings, or a cozy hangout spot for teenagers, Colombo’s coffee shops are becoming increasingly popular, with many patrons spending hour after hour at these places.
Perhaps these coffee shops do have at least one segment of Colombo’s population to depend on. The cost of living has been rising, however, and visiting one’s favourite coffee shop has been pushed down the list of priorities. To add to this, most coffee shops are located in prime areas, like Colombo 7, 3, and 5 – where rent is far from cheap. So what keeps them going?
“We have a very strong customer base, and I feel we have good customer service. We don’t just serve coffee, we serve people,” says Dilano de Livera, Manager, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. A US-based franchise, The Coffee Bean has been operating in Sri Lanka for seven years, and caters to foreigners and locals. “At night, it’s mostly locals who come here. During the school holidays, kids from the schools around the corner hangout at our coffee shop. We have a standard, all our products are from overseas, but we’ve done our best to keep prices down,” he says. Not too far from The Coffee Bean’s Horton Place outlet, is the somewhat newer Coco Veranda, at Ward Place. “From the time we started, which was two years ago, we have developed a strong customer relationship,” says Mohamed Nawaz, Operations Manager, Coco Veranda, where the coffee is brought down from Italy, and the average cappuccino costs Rs. 340.
“People come here to relax; coffee has become a way of life to many,” he explains, adding that “Most of our customers are students from international schools. We cater a lot to the urban crowd, and VIPs. In Colombo, the coffee fever has just started. People who can afford to go abroad and who have experienced this know what it’s about,” he says.
On the flipside, these coffee shops have also come under criticism for being overpriced, and as a result ‘elitist’, in the sense that the price discrimination ensures that one class of people, and one class only, will be seen around these outlets. Azlie, a Colombo-based businessman, agrees that coffee shops are “definitely over-priced.” However, he adds that “From a business perspective, I can understand why they have to work this way, to recover their costs, especially if it’s a franchise”. To those like him, visiting a coffee shop is sometimes a matter of convenience. “I would go to a coffee shop if I need to meet someone, but can’t catch them for lunch or dinner. They are ideal for business meetings when compared with restaurants – because you know that in thirty minutes, one hour tops, you can get going,” he explains, while also adding, “Yes, it has also become a trend, especially for those within a higher income bracket; they can afford to make it a regular thing.”
“I honestly think most coffee shops in Colombo are way over-priced,” says Leah, who explained that there was a time when she too visited coffee shops often. “My friends and I used to meet up at coffee shops sometimes, but now I feel it’s a waste of money. Also, I think it’s become somewhat of a social fad – a coffee shop is one of those places to see and be seen at. They should be hangout spots, but you don’t necessarily have to make it a social event,” she says. “Also, there’s rarely a middle ground. You can either get cheap coffee at a road side kade, or pay Rs. 500 at a coffee shop, which is the average price,” says Leah. Some, however, do seem to have found this ‘middle ground’. Hansa Coffee, tucked away down Fife Road in Colombo 5, started off as merely a promotional outlet for the Hansa Coffee brand, but has now become a favourite among coffee lovers, as well as people who drop by to “discuss ideas, or just hang out,” as Hansa’s co-owner, Shanya Hulugalle explains. Tiny in size, especially when compared with other popular coffee shops, Hansa possesses a charm of its own. What makes Hansa stand out, says Shanya, is that the coffee is an entirely Sri Lankan product, and the coffee shop – where cappuccino sells at an average of Rs. 200 – is open to those of all ages and income levels. “The competition does affect us, especially since some are multinationals,” says Shanya, “but they are also places geared to a set of people who make a lot of money.” Her idea of the ideal coffee shop presents an interesting image – of a place where all kinds of people “can meet, hang around, and come up with ideas” – with a cup of freshly brewed coffee to complete the picture.