Serving sumptuousness @ 70

On the bustling Pondy Bazaar, Geetha Cafe has stood the test of time. From a humble South Indian joint, it has grown into an eatery with an expansive menu.
The two-storeyed humble cafe is spread across 2,000 sq ft.
The two-storeyed humble cafe is spread across 2,000 sq ft.

CHENNAI : For anyone who has been a resident of Chennai in the 80s or 90s, and have now moved cities, a visit to Geetha Cafe on Pondy Bazaar is a must. The bright red letters arranged on a pristine white board, amid two other colourful ones, beckon the coffee and ghee roast lover in them. Sharing this sentiment I meet a customer who is in the city for a day and he shares, “I am a resident of Mysore, and stopping at this cafe is a must when I come to Chennai. It has become a tradition now. I bring my kids along to enjoy the delicious food and the coffee offered here.” On his way out, he waves to the waiters and congratulates the owners.

The two-storeyed humble cafe is spread across 2,000 sq ft. A customer is often greeted by the cashier at the ticket counter on their way in and out. The machines that are switched on as the sun’s first rays of the day pierce through the sky, keep delivering orders well into the night. On the east end are the dosa masters, skillfully making round, crispy, thin dosas laden with ghee and twirled into a cone. Opposite the coffee brewers are the juice makers. For shoppers, passersby, and those waiting on the coloured blocks that now adorn the walkway, the aroma of coffee brewing at the north end of the eatery is enough to pull them in.

The ground floor of the cafe can seat 30-odd customers, and caters everything from breakfasts and meals to milkshakes and more. As I enter the joint on a busy Monday, waiters hurry past me carrying heavy steel plates an array of items — bowls of sambar, rasam, kootu, poriyal, curd, pickle, and appalam — neatly arraged on them; another rushes out of the kitchen carrying hot rice; yet another one waits a step behind him to pour molten ghee on the rice. This well-orchestrated daily dance is under the watchful eyes of J Keerthivasan, one of the partners of Geetha Cafe. He sits down for a chat with CE as the eatery completes 70 years of customer service.

The origins

“In 1951, my father, Jayaram, owned a Thanjavur Coffee Shop in the neighbourhood. He strongly believed that supplying quality food would make the customers satisfied and in turn, one can reach heights. By working day and night for three years, brewing coffee, and selling it in traditional steel davara sets, he and his brothers partnered up to establish Geetha Cafe on June 17, 1954,” shares Keethivasan. The cafe is named after his grandmother.

Cafes were not popular back in the day and people did not step out to buy food, unlike today. Predominantly, labourers who worked in the vicinity were their regular customers, with the exception of a few families. “Some families came to have coffee when they used to shop because coffee is the special and fast-selling drink on the menu here,” adds Keethivasan.

To get more customers to savour their secret family recipes, Jayaram and his brothers started ‘1 anna meal’. This combo served 26 dishes including rava dosa, idli, adai, and keera vadai. “Our motive was not business-oriented but to serve quality food in good quantity so that people who enter the premises hungry, return satiated,” he shares.

Slowly, a strong customer base was built. Generations of a family now find comfort in this cafe. Vaishnavi, a college student, says, “I am in my twenties and have been coming since I was two years old. When my parents shopped at Nalli Silks, Twin Brothers, and Big Bazaar, we came here to have keera vadai. Now, I study at Shashun College and walk here to re-live the taste.”

A painting presented by a customer to the cafe
A painting presented by a customer to the cafe

Following the footsteps

Keerthivasan joined the team of 10 partners immediately after graduating from Loyola College in 1978 when he was 21 years old. He was trained in three months by his father and fellow employees. “During schooling, my father brought me here to learn finance management and would ask me to interact with the workers. They taught me everything that I know today. From how to receive customer feedback to blessings, all of it was a learned and lived experience,” he says.

Like his father, Keerthivasan puts customers’ and employee preferences above all. “I treat all my staff members equally; only when they are happy does the business thrive. In the same way, our customers...only with their blessings are we still standing strong,” he says.

The journey to 70 years has been a challenging one, no doubt. Keeping up with technology and competition was the major focus. Over years, the neighbouring shops have changed. Keerthivasan recalls that when the eatery began functioning, there was a branch of Nalli Silks to its right and a Gama Pen Store to the left. Now, both the shops have shifted.

The menu also saw its share of makeovers. “Offering South Indian food initially, we broadened our service to North Indian cuisine with the inauguration of the air-conditioned Veekay restaurant on the first floor. This was also renovated and reopened during Covid. We listed ourselves on food delivery platforms so people could relish ‘everlasting tradition and everlasting taste’ from their homes. We brought in digital cash printing methods so we don’t stay behind in the race,” explains Keerthivasan.

Standing strong at 70, Geetha Cafe has a loyal clientele and respectful employees. Their age-old recipes, passed down through generations, have Chennaiites thronging the joint — be it the joggers in the morning having their first cup of coffee, college students and working professionals having lunch that tastes similar to what their mothers cook, shoppers stopping to savour keera vadai or families getting together for a plate of chapati and a side dish.

To celebrate the milestone, they are offering all customers a bag of sweets and a Lord Krishna keychain. “All we want is our customers’ blessings so we sustain in the business for 70 more years,” concludes Keerthivasan.

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