A Feluda-themed cafe in Kolkata – it may seem not so special, but the ambience and overall presentation of Satyajit Ray’s immortal character make South Kolkata’s Abar Baithak a unique coffee shop.
Ask someone outside Bengal to define a Bengali through a variety of words. Some of them will surely be tea, adda, Feluda, Satyajit Ray, maach er jhol (fish curry), rasogolla, mishti doi (sweet curd) etc. This is quintessentially true that all these are very much related to the Bengali ethos. However, with time, these pieces of the puzzle called Bengali culture have evolved.
The small tea stalls in colonies or paras are slowly diminishing and being replaced by plush and sophisticated coffee shops. These coffee shops have been becoming the epicentre of adda or brainstorming sessions for many – from college-goers to intellectuals. There are plenty of coffee shops in Kolkata that retain the old charm of Calcutta. Some of them carry nostalgia for different aspects of Bengali ethos. Some are designed around the theme of English or American breakfast, while some promote work-from-cafe; some are themed around the idea of tea/coffee and book reading.
In the last two decades, Kolkata has witnessed a drastic change in its gastronomic cultural map. The mushrooming coffee shops are an integral part of that. From multinational chains to standalone cafes, even roadside tea stalls themed around innovative startup ideas have become a part of the city. Modern sophisticated coffee shops can be the next destination for new-age tea-coffee-adda lovers in the city – this idea helped Swaralipi Chatterjee, a film artist to start her entrepreneurial journey as the proprietress of Abar Baithak, a unique cafe nestled in the heart of Jodhpur Park, South Kolkata.
The cafe is themed around Satyajit Ray’s famous fictional character Feluda, the evergreen big brother of Bengalis, who happens to be a private detective by profession. This cafe not only houses Feluda aka Pradosh Chandra Mitter (Mitra) but his companions Jatayu aka Lalmohan Ganguly and nephew Topshe aka Topesh Ranjan Mitra and Feluda’s arch-nemesis Maganlal Meghraj. Apart from tea, coffee, cookies and other savouries, this cafe is also full of books. Visitors can read those sitting at the cafe and buy the books as well.
Swaralipi claims that this cafe is the first to give a headstart to the current trend of standalone-themed coffee shops that have been mushrooming around the city. The journey started originally in 2012 at 5, Rajani Sen Road, Mudiali near Tollygunge. It was christened Baithak and themed around Feluda only. The cafe didn’t do well because of business mismanagement. However, she and her ex-partner Shoumo Banerjee continued chasing their dream and started Abar Baithak on September 29, 2014. It took inspiration from CCD and Barista but built its own ingenuity.
Since then the cafe has witnessed a lot of ups and downs just like its owner. She even opened Abar Baithak cafe in Hyderbad in the latter half of 2019. However, she eventually had to shut it down for personal reasons. In 2020, she opened another branch of Abar Baithak in Wood Square Mall, Narendrapur.
While Abar Baithak started its journey back in September 2014, it was the same time when Mrs Magpie and Wise Owl also started their journey in the adjacent area. While these two are themed around Western culture, Abar Baithak stayed focused on Bengali ethos with its ambience. Only the food is continental, claims Swaralipi. “Abar Baithak is the first coffee shop in Kolkata where live music was introduced. Apart from that, we have hosted live theatre, art exhibitions, alternative film screenings etc. We are the first coffee shop that introduced many new things into the market that were not there before us,” she further added.
Opening a standalone coffee shop in 2012 was not at all an easy venture. As the owner was saying, many people asked her to rather open a rice hotel that would cater for the daily requirements of many people, instead of a coffee shop that would sell a cup of tea or coffee at Rs 50 or so. The struggle was multidimensional. Getting the right spot was pretty tough for the owner. Then came the loan. While getting the fund accumulated for investing in the business was becoming increasingly difficult, she received the loan under the Credit Guarantee Fund Trust for Micro and Small Enterprises (CGTMSE). Support from family and others too is another area, where the struggle continued.
Many of its customers are regulars who have their usual spots, allowing them to read or smoke or have a cup of their favourite beverage. Some people drop by occasionally to enjoy the ambience and the food. The cafe is an interesting business project striking a balance between the Bengali adda culture and modern cafe theme. The innovations spin on a classic theme that many customers find amusing.
While the coffee shop was swiftly strengthening its position on Kolkata’s cafe map, the pandemic came as a strong headwind putting a hole in the owner’s plans. “The pandemic of course put a hole in my pocket,” said the owner, echoing the words of many restaurateurs and cafe owners. However, she also revealed that now business is almost back on its feet again.
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