The Coffee House is not a mere restaurant. It is an institution. It is a different world, encompassing all worlds. The Coffee House is a ‘cocktail’ of different lives. A cross section of society is always found here. The Coffee House is a place of quietude. One feels at home here. Coffee is accompanied by animated discussions and politics of the whole world. The Coffee House is the place to protest and vent when no other place is left. Love, too, flourishes in the Coffee House. Deals are made. When one wants to snooze, what better place than the Coffee House?
— Observations of noted
late Hari Shankar Parsai
The Indian Coffee House at Jabalpur that inspired Parsai to extol its virtues celebrated its Golden Jubilee earlier this month, in a manner befitting the character of this unique institution. It had invited over 800 of its staff, along with their families, from its branches in Madhya Pradesh and outside. For two days they were feted, along with patrons from Jabalpur and other cities. Many of the old timers recalled their association with the Coffee House, which was their ‘alter home’ and ‘alter college.’ A veteran politician observed that as students, they always held their meetings at the Coffee House and were often short of the money to pay bills. “That money I still owe to the Indian Coffee House,” he said.
And the Indian Coffee Houses in those days were not doing so well financially as they are now. In fact, the landlord had refused the Indian Coffee Workers’ Cooperative Society Limited to start the Indian Coffee House at the building (in Jabalpur) which was vacated by the Coffee Board, as he did not think that the Society would be able to pay the rent. It was only at the intevention of the then Collector of Jabalpur that the landlord relented.
The Society, which had started with 16 members and Rs 1,365, today runs over 80 establishments — and not only in Madhya Pradesh — with around 2500 employees. The venture stands out as a shining example of growth and prosperity.
The most notable feature of the Society is its democratic character which has continued undiluted in the past half century. Every employee, after two years of service, becomes a member of the Society (and ceases to be a member on retirement or on leaving the service). The members elect an 11-member management committee which manages all the establishments. An employee starts at the bottom and is promoted on the basis of seniority and merit. No direct recruitment is made to managerial posts. The present senior general manager OK Rajagopalan (who is also the president of the Society) had started at the lowest rung in the kitchen. Non-employees are not taken as members of the Society. Exception has, however, been made in the case of P Sadasivan Nair, founder-member of the Society, and Indira Nair, who is legal advisor to the Society.
The Government of India-sponsored Coffee Board had in the 1940s opened the “India Coffee Houses” in different parts of the country with a view to popularise coffee drinking. As these were running into losses, the Board closed them down in the mid-1950s.
Communist stalwart AK Gopalan and Subhadra Joshi, members of Parliament, persuaded the retrenched coffee workers to form cooperative societies. The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had also strongly supported the idea of cooperative societies. Thus the cooperative societies were formed by coffee workers in several States. The first Indian Coffee House under the new dispensation was opened in New Delhi on October 27, 1957.
The 16-member Coffee Workers Union in Jabalpur formed the Indian Coffee Workers’ Cooperative Society Limited, under the guidance of P Sadasivan Nair, a practicing advocate of Jabalpur. It was not an easy time for the workers. Their wages were low and the work was strenuous. However, the dedication and diligence of the employees made the Indian Coffee Houses tremendously popular among the people and these Coffee Houses gradually became the meeting places for almost every section of society: politicians, journalists, writers, poets, students; for those who wanted excellent food at moderate prices as well as for those who had no other place to spend their idle hours.
Today the Society has its own multi-storey buildings at several places and provides lodging also. The employees get, in addition to respectable monthly wages, the benefits of 52 days’ leave in a year, LTC every two years, medical allowance, education allowance (for their children), group insurance, house rent allowance and liberal home loans. When an employee retires (at the age of 60 years), he is paid a pension by the Society. Besides, he is also entitled to the pension now being paid by the Provident Fund Organisation.
The tips left by customers are collected in a common box. The amount is distributed among the employees at the end of the month. Those holding managerial responsibilities are not entitled to a share.