International Finance
Country Focus Country Focus Magazine September - October 2018

Why startups must cash in on this Indian hillstation’s modest downtown culture

Why startups must cash in on this Indian hillstation's modest downtown culture
Abandoned by modernity, now the small-town could refresh the likes of a startup destination because of its self-effacing characteristics

A magnificent part of the Nilgiris, on the northern side of the gorge, resides Coonoor, a small-town where the hills exude a lovely whiff of eucalyptus and breathe freshness into the air. The town’s roots of civilisation are long-established in harvesting the tea plantations and building homestays in its more secluded neighbourhoods. To erode this culture for the sake of an enhanced business climate is a slow progress.

Yet, a report published by YourStory two years ago spotlights Ooty, a popular tourist location heading uphill from Coonoor could be a prospect for a diverse entrepreneurial community because of its undisturbed territory in commerce. There, as well as in Coonoor, some young people have purchased homes they can frequent, carrying urban talent with them, in order to manifest their interest of setting-up a business.

Of one such example is Café Diem. Café Diem is a descendant of those quaint cafés, with its signature style—it’s owned by a resident in Coonoor, Radhika Shastry, a former Managing Director of Resort Condominiums International  in Bangalore.

Café Diem, built in January 2017, is a take on Carpe Diem—which signifies seize the moment. “I have always lived by the motto of Carpe Diem and therefore it struck a chord with me,” as Shastry recalls, her journey to start the Café has a lot to do with her passion for cooking. In fact, it is her first accomplishment in the food business. Prior to her entrepreneurship in Coonoor, she was spearheading the Southeast Asia region for Resort Condominiums International. “So after I quit RCI I was still consulting for them. I spent two weeks in Bangalore and two weeks in Coonoor. But I’ve got a home here in Coonoor, and I eventually wanted to live here. So I wondered to live here I will have to do something—and my interest in cooking and food and things like that was a great opportunity,” is how Café Diem came into being.

Most of the time tourists and locals in town are on the lookout for a nice, snug place to visit. For one, Shastry recognised that some parts of Coonoor has an air of colonial presence while other parts will remind tourists of its centurial tribal culture—and in the midst of this soulful neighbourhood “a quaint place with its own character would work very well.”

Word that there is a Café like that in town has stoked a lot of interest. Its regulars in the last one year have been purely organic. The Café is built on the backyard of Shastry’s house, and the guests will have to walk through the house garden to get there. There is a deck erected for them to relax and enjoy the panoramic view of the picturesque enclose: “I kind of visualised a very quaint, hillside café …So I was trying to get all the factors right—I wanted to give [my guests] a very unique experience.” This year, the Café celebrated Independence Day by hosting families from the defense force—a very special note to them because of the town’s close connect with patriotism.

Competition is low-key in Coonoor since there are not many imaginative businesses set-up in the neighbourhood.  In fact, she says “I’ve created a niche market in town with a café serving an international menu, but vegetarian.” It is the place to go for vegetarians and others who would like to relish the taste of good food—has become the unique selling point of Café Diem. The food is cooked vegetarian because Shastry is always keen not to “serve anything” she cannot taste—and that can be a very rare quality yet to be discovered in the food business; in addition she capitalises on the reality that vegetarians are forced to relish the limited servings on a menu, which the Café tries to reinvent on day-to-day.

It is in a small-town like Coonoor that one can experiment without too many inhibitions. Café Diem’s menu concocts classic recipes that can be found nowhere else; the best being, sourdough base thin crust pizzas, served with exotic toppings like ratatouille, or smoked bean curd. Now, the pizzas are a real speciality. Because the dough is not made from yeast, instead “we create our own culture” Shastry says. There is an interesting feedback on the smoked bean curd—that it seems to taste like smoked bacon. The pumpkin coconut soup is a must-have. The delectable lemon tarts are caramelised on top, but nothing beats the savoury cakes, a chef’s speciality. Freshly risen breads from the oven is always on the menu. The menu is hand painted. Each decor is bought from different parts of the world like “table mats are from South Africa”; a symbol of free-spirit at the Café is that townies would love to revisit.

In comparison with other hill towns such as Guwahati, Coonoor reeks naivety in its downtown culture as there is not much startup creation in the territory—therefore it being a natural enthusiast and non-judgemental about the values a business is likely to embrace is inspiring—unlike where in cities having vibrant communities there is always collision of ideas. In fact, startups should chance upon this small-town charm to launch high-tech projects in agriculture, environmental conservation and hospitality, therefore nurturing the town for a deeper level of community engagement.


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