I had a chance to sit down with Shilpa Kotamarthi, the Toronto-based Tamil business owner of Madras Kaapi. A specialty coffee shop bringing you a taste of South India with their authentic chicory blend coffee. Find out what inspired this bold venture.
(You can visit Madras Kaapi at 870 College Street, Toronto.)
What inspired you to open a coffee shop? Describe the process and journey that led you here?
I grew up in South India and I worked as an engineer in finance. My partner and I had a shared love for Indian filtered coffee. We couldn’t find it in Montreal, so in 2015 we started sourcing the green coffee beans from India and found a local roaster in Montreal. We learned how to roast coffee from our roaster in Montreal. We shared it with family and friends and they loved it. In 2016 we launched our website and sold our coffee online. For the first 3 years we both had full-time jobs. It was hard to break into the Montreal market due to language barriers. In 2020, I moved to Toronto because of my husband’s job and I had to leave my job. I had more time and with my background in branding I decided to go full-time with Madras Kaapi. We didn’t have the same struggle in Toronto because there is a bigger South Asian community. We started doing pop-ups in Kensington Market and noticed people were coming from all over the city to try our coffee. Eventually we realized pop-ups were too much effort and found a short term spot for three months. We used it as a trial before finally opening our current location on College street.
What makes Madras Kaapi stand out from the plethora of coffee shops in the neighborhood?
Our coffee is unique to South India and invokes a lot of nostalgia. It feels like you are back home in India. Even non South Indian’s say the place feels like home. Our main hero is our coffee. Chicory is what makes the coffee unique. Our blend consists of 90% coffee and 10% chicory. The ratio of coffee to chicory is unique to every home in South India and every family will have their own ratios. The chicory adds a very woody and nutty flavour. It is brewed in a simple South Indian filter with 3 or 4 ingredients and we often joke that it’s “low tech coffee”. It is served in traditional davara and tumbler with a special pouring technique of pouring back and forth to aerate the coffee and create a frothy texture. It’s an experience!
How important is authenticity? What steps do you take to ensure your product stays true to its roots and heritage?
I didn’t think of doing it any other way. We want to be extremely authentic so we source our beans from India. It took 6 months to research the process of sourcing the beans. If you believe in it so much you have to make it authentic and that’s the only way you know that people will appreciate it too.
What did your friends and family think when you told them you were leaving your high profile career to start your own business?
I had a very supportive partner. When I had so much conviction in the potential, my partner said let's do it. My mom is a bit more traditional and said I should do it part-time and keep working. It’s been two years and it still doesn’t pay me anything close to my corporate job. That’s how I knew that I truly do it for the passion and not the money.
What was something you wish you had known when you started this journey? What advice would you give to others who may be thinking about going on a similar path?
In 2016 I never expected a passion project could be a full-time opportunity. I thought it was something you only spend 2-3 hours on. I wish I spent more time from 2016 to 2019 to focus on my passion. If you have something - build it and spend time on your passion. Prioritize it over other things. Don’t compare. Don’t worry about your idea being stolen. Make sure you do it right and it will show in the end product.
What were some of the challenges you faced while trying to build your business?
A lot of reading online about the rules and licenses in Ontario and Quebec. The challenges were less about the coffee and more about operations. Having a tech background I did not know anything about this. Not knowing someone who did it was hard. That’s why I always help and share any industry knowledge with others. It took time, but I am glad we did it the right way.
What are you the most proud of?
We did it without any support. We invested our savings. We put it in all the effort to learn all about Indian coffee and became the first South Indian coffee brand in Canada. We started by selling 10 bags of coffee a month, now we sell 10 times that. A lot are repeat customers who keep coming back.
Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?
The coffee house is important and the focus is coffee, but we also enjoy community building. We host lots of events after hours. We want to share our space and build a community space. We are also starting to curate experiences through Airbnb and have coffee making classes and teach people how to prepare Indian coffee and the art of the pour. We hope to have more locations to reach more people. Our coffee house receives a lot of love for the design. I want to offer cafe and design consultations to people who want to open their own spaces.
How important is support from your community to the success of your business?
Without customers we wouldn’t be here. Super grateful to our customers. I look forward to waking up and meeting customers, connecting and having conversations. Our growth has been very organic and it’s humbling. I expected this to be a niche product and mostly expected South Indians. Now, many non-Indians come and love the coffee and they come back. It has gone from being a niche product to mainstream, at least in Toronto. Toronto has been an amazing city. I lived in India, DC, NY and Montreal. I feel the most connected in Toronto and it's the closest to home.
Visit Madras Kaapi at 870 College Street, Toronto.
Get to know our latest myTamilDate (MTD) success story! Our MTD couple was captured by our UK photography partner Photon Image by Daran.