I was taking an 8.30am flight that morning when News channels at the Chennai Airport flashed that Mr. VG Siddhartha had gone missing the previous night at Mangalore. He had asked his driver to stop the car and walked along the now infamous bridge along Nethravathi River near Ullala town only to never return. His dead body was found two days later along the coast and was cremated the same day at his native town, Chikmagalur. Those unfortunate three days, I happened to be in Bangalore on work. I was restless right from the moment I heard the news, the two days of suspense and finally watching the last rites on a TV App on my mobile even as my Cab was passing by Coffee Day Square on Vittal Mallya Road. I was breathless for a few hours even after reaching my hotel room that night. Sometimes, I still get nightmares.
Although I was never too close to “Chairman” as we called him, I had the rare opportunity to work closely with him between 2009 – 2011 when I was General Manager – Business Development at Café Coffee Day setting up 140 new cafés within the confines of retail precincts including Airports, Metros, Hypermarkets, Supermarkets, Apparel Department Stores, Cinemas, College and University Campuses and so on. We would meet twice a month or so to go through the potential sites that were on offer and he would share his wise views whether to proceed or not, given his global experience in the Coffee business.
He always wanted to make Café Coffee Day one of the most loved homegrown Indian consumer brands. Legend has it that the farmer’s son was fascinated how Coffee was brewed, served and enjoyed at cafés in Europe, the US and the world over when he would travel on work in the 90’s across continents. Initially, CCD as it is known lovingly was stated off as an Internet Parlor on Bangalore’s Iconic Brigade Road. However, VGS as he was addressed affectionately decided to sell Coffee for a fee and offer the Internet for free even as he would sip his coffee slowly and see the future of coffee cafés all over India.
The company started off expanding in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad and quickly moved to Bombay and Delhi. There would be constant comparisons in the early part of the new Millennium between CCD and Barista, though CCD evolved & grew sooner than Barista and others, thanks to a very strong team that focused their strengths on F&B, Café Operations, Marketing and of course, a very well laid HR Foundation. That every cup of Coffee should be consistent was a goal that each one of us tried to achieve to the best of their abilities.
Mr. Siddhartha gave a different “meaning” to Coffee in a predominantly tea drinking country. After all, during its hey days, CCD was serving over 2 lakh cups of Coffee through Cafés and Vending machines installed at Offices, Colleges, Canteens and so on. “Coffee?” became a buzzword in India. For friends to catch up, for asking a Date, for an informal job interview and so on. In fact, I would wonder if there is any Start-Up in India which has never had at least one of their many discussions at a CCD nearby. VGS made Coffee the unofficial beverage of Indians who are on the move – from Airports to Colleges, Malls to Multiplexes and beyond. Today, if Coffee is a popular drink across the span of the country and is a preferred ice breaker, the credit solely goes to Café Coffee Day and the visionary Late Shri. VG Siddhartha. In fact, in my current role at Levista Coffee, one of the audacious mission statements I have been crafting is how to replace the first beverage of the day, being Tea to Coffee across millions of Indian households. Among the erudite and the educated, this would be a relatively easier task because VGS & CCD have already built much familiarity to this fascinating hot beverage across the predominantly Tea consumers even within Tier 2/3/4 towns in India.
Over the past 12 months, so many people have asked me why he committed suicide – such a successful Entrepreneur who build a fledgling empire, with one bean at a time. Almost. And my reply has always been the same. Neither I nor anyone else was standing next to him when he fell off the bridge. No one other than him would know what was running in his mind on that fateful evening of 29th July 2019 or the few days and weeks ahead of that. Was it political? Business? Debts? Societal Pressure? No one knows and will ever know.
Law has taken its due course, so have scrutiny by the authorities. But this is all post-mortem. The world lost another soul to suicide. As we always say, one is driven to this malaise called suicide. It’s sometimes a meticulously planned one. Like my maternal uncle did in 2014. Like many of us are pushed to the decision in a whim. Most of us, including me don’t’ end up doing it for some reason or the other, With VGS, we just don’t know. However, a lot happened to Coffee since 1997. Coffee as a product, CCD as a brand and VGS as an Entrepreneur will always have a page in the Indian Consumer & Retail book. So much to learn from this episode. May his Atma attain the Lord’s Feet and I pray to my cherished Deity that his soul attain Mukti. Om Shanthi.