Leo Coffee’s origins date back to 1910, when a certain PR Karupiah Nadar from Pattiveeranpatti at the foothills of Palani hills, Tamil Nadu, began buying coffee from European Jesuit missionaries. An agreement, dated 1915, with the British-owned Nilgiris Coffee Traders Company still exists with his family.
He soon tasted success and started buying out the estates, finally owning as much as 2,000 acres. The plantations, named Little Flower Estates and Santa Maria Estates, still remain with the family. He set up his own coffee processing and curing facilities.
Venu Srinivasan, CEO of Leo Coffee, speaks about the challenges in running a family business with a rich legacy!
The Genesis of a Great Brand
PRK Bhaskaran, son of PRK Nadar, who followed him into the business, along with his brothers, set up ‘Joseph’s Coffee’, a coffee roasting and grinding unit at Tiruchirappalli in the 1950s. The brand’s success over the next two decades awoke the desire to establish a coffee retailing business in Chennai, then Madras.
Bhaskaran travelled to Madras with the guidance of his mentor, the Archbishop of Madurai Fr John Peter Leonard, after who the brand ‘Leo Coffee’ is named. He bought a house in Mylapore, and converted it into a roasting, grinding and office space and opened a coffee retailing unit nearby in 1971. He brought in employees from his home town to work in the new unit. Interestingly, brand Leo Coffee still functions out of this very same office. The name board ‘PRK Nadar Sons, Coffee Wholesale Merchants’ still hangs outside the front door.
Why Fresh Roast?
The USP for Leo Coffee was, and remains, its quality — from ‘bean to bag’ as they put it — and as word spread about the new coffee shop customers swelled and more outlets were opened. By the 1980s, 15 outlets of Leo Coffee were functioning in Chennai in places such as T Nagar, West Mambalam and Triplicane. The number of outlets kept increasing as the brand grew in popularity.
By 1991, a new manufacturing facility with modern, imported equipment for roasting and grinding was opened at Perungudi. Around this time, Leo Coffee also went in for brand promotion and reportedly roped in AR Rahman, then a budding musician, to compose a jingle for a television commercial. The TV commercial highlighted the ‘traditional’ aspect of the brand, the aroma and taste of Leo Coffee, and became a big hit, while imprinting the brand in public consciousness. This advertisement was said to be the launchpad into the film industry for Rahman and actor Arvind Swamy.
To be faithful to Leo Coffee’s tagline, ‘the pure taste of tradition’, the quality of the product is monitored at every stage, be it in the high standards of cultivation followed, the selection of coffee beans, processing, blending, roasting or grinding.
This coffee brand offers shade-grown coffee berries which have a strong, enhanced flavour. The Leo plantations adopt sustainable cultivation — sans the use of chemicals and pesticides — the coffee plants grow under the trees, stimulating biotic (plants and animals that may act as producers, consumers or decomposers) and abiotic (sunlight, oxygen, soil, water and temperature) processes. These, in turn, facilitate decarbonisation. These estates also yield the premium quality ‘Leo Single-origin Coffee Beans’ that are sold online
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