By Dinesh rai
Synopsis: When you talk about coffee, one name keeps cropping up. Himalayan Java was at the forefront of promoting coffee culture in the valley and has been hugely successful.
In 1974, the Germans started the Bhaktapur Development Project (BDP) to bring the old city back to its former glory. ‘Khwopa’ as it was once known had seen her hey days during the Malla era, but after the invasion by the Gorkhali army under Prithivi Narayan Shah who established his base in Kantipur (now Kathmandu), it gradually saw a decline over time. By the early 1970s, Bhaktapur was in a sorry state, dirty and neglected, prompting many citizens to sell their property and move to Kathmandu. The year the BDP was getting started, a baby boy was born in this archaic city to Gauri Pradhan and his wife Shanti in the month of November. He was named ‘Gagan’.
Gauri Pradhan was a businessman and still is. He began by starting a transport company in the 1980s supplying vehicles to travel agencies. He eventually realized he would be better off starting his own travel agency. So he opened Kumari Travels in Durbar Marg when the area was filled predominantly by travel agencies and airlines offices like Tiger Tops, Yeti Travels, Gaida Wildlife, Lufthansa, Thai Airways and many more. Like many Bhaktapureans, he too decided to move to Kathmandu and Gagan grew up in their new home in New Baneshwar.
Gagan went to Banasthali School and finished his intermediate (Plus 2) from Shankar Dev Campus which he remembers more for the frequent fights among the students rather than the education. “I had already lost interest in my studies as I saw no point in studying algebra and all that. I wanted to do something with my life,” Gagan reminisces. So he went off to Sydney, Australia after graduation, to study hotel management and joined the William Blue International School of Hotel Management where he completed a four-year course in hotel management and returned to Nepal. Among his friends who had returned from down under, three of them got frustrated and went back to Australia.
But Gagan was determined to stay and do something in his home country, so he joined a 5 Star hotel. However, he was to quit after only a week and started exploring other possibilities. “I make decisions very quickly which is important in life. I started doing a market study to see if I should start a hotel or a cafe,” says Gagan. After searching for something to start on his own, his research showed there was a dearth of coffee shops which he’d seen plenty of in Australia. “Why don’t I start a coffee shop?” he thought, but he wasn’t sure of himself. So he decided to leave for the US for a short intensive course called S.C.A. (crash course). It taught him how to open up a business, how to do marketing and how to design the menu and ambience.
When Pradhan returned to Kathmandu, he opened Himalayan Java at the Heritage Plaza, Kamaladi with a small investment in 1999. It was a quiet place with parking and the aim was to attract the 200 plus staff that worked in these two big buildings to come down and have coffee. But unforeseen problems forced him to relocate. “We had opened Java with the intension of catering to locals and expats but the new location was in the tourist area of Thamel. In the early days, there were a lot of foreign returned students who came because they were used to drinking coffee. But we had problems with the locals who ordered espresso only to realize it came in a tiny cup and tasted very bitter. Habituated to drinking Nescafe, these customers complained bitterly and refused to pay,” recalls Gagan. He completely immersed himself to making Java successful, putting in 16 to 18 hours of work a day and with a small staff, he did the job of a cashier, barista and waiter, even went to the extent of mopping the floor himself. “You have to lead by example to get your staff motivated,” says Pradhan. He reveals the key to his success: passion, patience and hard work.
It took a while for local people to realize what real coffee was and sales did pick up gradually. Then the FIFA World Cup of 2002 came up and changed the fortunes of Himalayan Java. They had put up a large screen TV to show movies and TV channels but it was the football games that drew the largest crowds. That was the turning point and people never stopped coming to Java. It became the place to meet for people of all walks of life. It soon became the happening place in town and if you had to meet somebody, the first name that came to your mind was ‘Himalayan Java’. Gagan had spent frugally while doing up the place buying the cheapest tiles from Bhaktapur and filling it up with sofas. “The name at first was confusing people; young boys came because they thought it was a computer shop and others seeing the large number of sofas thought it was a furniture shop,” says Gagan with a smile.
Today Himalayan Java is synonymous with coffee and deserves the credit for bringing coffee culture to Nepal. They had somehow coaxed tea drinkers to drink coffee as well. Seeing the success of Java, many other coffee shops began springing up all over town and in the most unexpected locations. Today even tandoori restaurants are devoting space to a coffee shop. “There are reportedly 4000 plus coffee shops in Kathmandu alone and that’s more than you’ll find in Italian cities,” informs Gagan.
But Himalayan Java is not the only enterprise that Gagan got involved in as there have been many other ventures. A drive through in Putali Sadak which was later turned into Sports Bar which he designed himself, Courtyard also in Putali Sadak and Nilgiri Thakali Delights which came about by default. “We bought this Thakali restaurant in Boudha to turn it into a café but we got the place intact, so it came with all these utensils, the whole works. We tried selling them off but couldn’t find a buyer, so I decided to run a Thakali Restaurant instead. Surprisingly, Nilgiri is doing very well,” says Pradhan.
In Labim Mall, Pulchowk, he’s opened Brewshala where barista courses are held and coffee making equipment is also sold. There are courses for locals and foreigners. “In the US these courses are very expensive, so I organize a six day course for Americans who wish to come here to study. For US $ 5000 the students get to attend the course and their tickets, hotel stay and tour are all included,” says Pradhan. But for someone who never rests, all that he’s achieved is not enough and he reveals, “I’ve started a coffee plantation in Fikkal, Ilam in eastern Nepal because some coffees can be grown in high altitude. This year we expect to harvest a ton of coffee and within two to three years it should go up to 10 if not 20 tons. People abroad have a very positive feeling towards Nepali coffee. When they drink coffee in a small coffee shop owned by a Nepali, they feel they’re helping a poor Nepali farmer in Nepal.
Pradhan also owns Mocca Trading which is a company that imports machines, utensils, roasters, grinders etc bringing in the best brands. “The coffee we sell abroad is FDA approved, but the coffee market is changing. In 2004/5 Nepal exported 80% of the coffee grown locally, but today coffee is so popular here that only 5% of it is being exported and the rest consumed locally. Some Nepali coffee is fetching better prices abroad than coffee from other countries.
By 2012, there was a lot of demand for franchises and today there are twelve Himalayan Java cafes in Kathmandu, one in Darjeeling, three in the US: in Omaha, Nebraska and Seattle. They have one in Toronto which is doing extremely well according to Gagan. “Java promotes Nepal more than the coffee shop,” he says.
Gagan married Nupoor Shrestha in 2003 and the couple has two kids: their son Gaurav is fourteen and their daughter Nirosha is seven. After all these years of running his businesses, he has lost nothing of his enthusiasm; busy as always, you can still sense the passion that drives him. Simply dressed, slim and energetic at 44, Gagan Pradhan hasn’t changed as a person since the early days of Java back in 1999. He’s taken success in his stride and remains committed to achieving more. One can only admire the drive and wonder what keeps this man going. Perhaps, one has to be born with fire in your belly!