Unravelling The History of Leo Coffee

That first cup of coffee with which you start your day is an exhilarating, invigorating, and personal experience. We want to put you in that Zen mode every time you bring that cup of coffee to your lips. We understand the significance of 'the very' first sip. Perfecting that moment is what drives the Leo coffee story which began over a hundred years ago! 

fresh cup of coffee

India and it's Coffee Connection 

Coffee, which was not always a part of our nation's flora, is today one of the biggest industries down south.

In fact, coffee lovers in India must be aware of the story of the Seven Magic Beans of Baba Budan, a Sufi saint. Vaguely reminiscent of the childhood story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Similarly, this one is about the Sufi saint planting seven coffee beans in the backyard of his home in Chikmagalur. You may question, where did he acquire these 'magic beans' from? During one of his spiritual visits to Mecca, he had the chance to relish the beverage. The dark drink that enthralled Baba Budan, treated like manna! The seeds should not be taken out of the country at any cost. Hence, the seeds were brought to India in stealth! He planted the seeds in his backyard and started brewing coffee, marking the beginning of coffee plantations in India!

Once the beans flourished and the taste of coffee touched Indian lips, there was no turning back! Through trial and error, the very first plantation owners learned how to tend to the delicate crop. However, before coffee became common, plantation workers faced many problems but they never gave up, not even during the Great Depression.

Competitive Coffee Cultivation!

In the early years of coffee cultivation in India, the British played a crucial role in its growth. They established coffee plantations in the hills of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. The Europeans introduced new techniques to improve the quality of Indian coffee. By the 19th century, Indian coffee had gained popularity across the globe. However, during this time, Indian coffee growers faced stiff competition from other coffee-producing countries like Brazil and Colombia.

Despite the competition, Indian coffee growers persevered, and they found a way to make their coffee stand out. Known for its taste and aroma, Indian coffee is the perfect blend of the climate, soil, and terrain. The coffee grown in the Western Ghats of India has a distinct flavor profile that is fruity, nutty, and spicy. It has a low acidity and a heavy body that makes it a favorite among coffee lovers. 

From being the 'forbidden fruit', it turned into a cash crop - accounting for 3.5% of global coffee production. Eighty percent of the Indian coffee production is exported. India is known for two main varieties of coffee - Robusta and Arabica. For the everyday Indian, steaming hot coffee is an experience to savor - never gets old - a sacred ritual even! One family that has been instrumental in the growth of the coffee industry in India is the PRK Nadar family.

Once Upon a Coffee Bean 

PRK Nadar is the starting point of this epic coffee story! A small-time coffee trader in 1910 went on to own two thousand acres of cultivated land. He built his business gradually - exploring the trade, learning its nuances, gaining the trust, and toiling till the very end.

PRK Nadar, born in 1894, was the founder of LEO. He started his coffee trading business in Pattiveeranpatti in 1910, a small yet wealthy village on the foothills of the Palani hills, filled with coffee traders and plantation owners.

In those days, British companies and European Jesuit missionaries, who managed the largest coffee estates dominated the coffee industry in India. His hard work and honest dealings gained the trust of the major estate companies. These included Stanes and Co., Arborant and Co., and the Nilgiris Coffee Traders company. Over the years, in a bid to expand his business, he set up curing works and bought out estates to grow his coffee. One of the agreements signed by PRK Nadar in 1915 with Fredrick Bell, the manager of the Pillavali estate, owned by the British, is preserved by the family today.

"This was the start of our family’s ties with the coffee industry and the eventual birth of Leo Coffee in Chennai a few decades later," says current Leo Coffee CEO, Venu Srinivasan (PRK Nadar's great-grandson).

agreement signed by PRK Nadar

Leo Coffee, Freshly Ground Since 1970 

Born into the business and nurtured around coffee, PRK Nadar's son PRK Bhaskaran was ready to pick up from where his father left off. He was 18 years old when his father passed away and the responsibility of managing the coffee business fell upon him and his three brothers. Bhaskaran hit the ground running. In fact, his passion for the plantations was more than from a business perspective. During the 1940s and 1950s, he worked tirelessly to establish the plantations, trekking for eight hours on foot to reach the estates he owned, such as the "Waterfall Estate" and "Iyer Thottam". 

As his estates flourished, the idea to retail coffee, create a brand, and establish it in a metro like Madras (present-day, Chennai) struck root. Carefully and meticulously, he planned the evolution. In 1970, Bhaskaran approached his mentor, Rev Father Jon Peter Leonard, to share his ideas. Father Leonard gave his blessings and encouraged him to proceed. Business owners and marketing masterminds stress the significance of picking the right brand name and positioning the brand appropriately. It was simpler times back then and the story behind the christening of Bhaskaran's coffee business is one of gratitude and love! Bhaskaran intended to name his brand 'Leonard Coffee' as a tribute to his mentor. Father Leonard pointed out that the name is difficult to pronounce. Hence, they decided to use the first three letters of his name, leading to the iconic brand name 'LEO'! 

Humble Beginnings in Madras

Equipped with an unclouded vision, trusted employees, and the verve to succeed at all costs, Bhaskaran bought a house in Mylapore, Madras, and set up a roasting unit. "The place is still in use," affirms Venu Srinivasan, the pride and passion evident in his tone. 

Adding, "Leo Coffee's success also came from the passion and dedication of its founder, Sri PRK Bhaskaran. He believed in creating a brand that would stand out and offer something unique to coffee lovers. He was a man of vision and purpose, and he worked tirelessly to make his dream a reality." The success that followed, did not happen overnight. It took an enormous effort - Bhaskaran supervised every step of the process to ensure the product they put out was of the best quality. Ultimately, the only way to take out the competition was to present customers with an experience that made them return for more.

Mylapore Roasting Unit

The Mylapore roasting unit churned out freshly ground coffee, then sold at their retail outlet nearby - in 1971. It was the kind of coffee that drew customers from across the city. The brand's success can be attributed to the high-quality coffee that it produced. They sourced their coffee from their plantations, ensuring that only the best beans were used. The beans were carefully roasted and blended to produce a coffee that had a unique flavor and aroma.

It was not an era of aggressive advertising to lure customers. There hardly was any! Sheer word of mouth brought customers in troves. The shop quickly gained popularity, attracting visitors from all over the city. As a result, he opened additional branches, with his second store located in T Nagar. By the mid-1980s, he had opened over fifteen stores throughout the city. It was just a matter of time before Leo Coffee became a household name and earned the stamp of approval. 

The Legacy

Themselves coffee aficionados, the family knows what every coffee-lover looks for in their coffee. The brand has always stood by its belief in the power and flavor of coffee brewed from freshly ground beans. Growing, expanding, exploring, and noticing trends in the coffee world is what continues to keep Leo Coffee relevant today. It is not just the business, passed down from one generation to the next but also the passion for coffee and the insatiable desire to build an empire on the unshakeable foundation laid by PRK Nadar. 

Why not take a look at the various types of coffee LEO offers to you, click this link to explore our products.


Coffee is not just a drink, it is a passion!