YourStory UNCUT: How Theka Coffee went from shutting shop to partnering with Reliance

YourStory UNCUT aims to explore the biggest challenges and failures startups and entrepreneurs have faced in their journeys. This week, Bhupinder Madaan of Theka Coffee talks about the roadblocks he encountered.
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Rome was not built in a day. And neither was Amazon. 

A global force today, the tech giant’s founder Jeff Bezos did not have an easy journey — facing several challenges and dealing with failures worth “billions of dollars” — before making it big. 

Closer home, Dhirubhai Ambani, Ratan Tata, and NR Narayan Murthy, among others also faced several failures before becoming inspiring success stories. 

While their success stories are widely known, it is also important to understand that they didn’t happen overnight. And the same applies to the famed entrepreneurs of today, who had to overcome many roadblocks to reach where they are.

YourStory UNCUT is a series of interviews where entrepreneurs reveal the biggest challenges and failures they have faced in their journey so far. 

In our first episode, YourStory spoke to Bhupinder Madaan, Founder of Theka Coffee

Juggling between businesses 

Hearing his life story, it is clear that Bhupinder always had the mind of an entrepreneur. He was only 14-years-old when he first made money. After school, the Ahmedabad boy would sell pamphlets for shopkeepers and other businessmen, for two hours, and make Rs 200 every day. 

“Once you get into the mindset of wanting to make money, there is no going back. The moment you see a gap in the market, you start making a business out of it,” Bhupinder tells YourStory

Later, while he was in Class 11-12, he enrolled as an external student in his school. That is, he did not have the compulsion to attend and would only go to school to appear for his exams. 

While visiting his other house in Delhi, Bhupinder spotted momo thelas or stalls in every nook and corner of the city. Ahmedabad, however, was yet to get the hype. Spotting a gap there, he started a momo stall in the city when he was only 15-years-old. In a span of two years, he had three. 

Then, he was also approached by a company canteen’s committee to introduce North Indian food, which led him to launch ‘Happy Hours’, offering parathas for breakfast. 

He simultaneously ran these two businesses, earning between Rs 3,000 and 4,000, per day. Later, he dropped out of college. Besides financial constraints at home, Bhupinder felt he was only, “Wasting my time studying; I made up my mind to never work for anyone,” he adds. 

He then started freelancing for an IT company on the business development side. He also worked with an app development company. “These two experiences made me realise that I was a good salesperson,” Bhupinder says. 

Bhupinder Madaan, Founder of Theka Coffee

The rise of Theka 

In January 2017, Bhupinder decided to quit everything else to focus on researching the food and beverage industry. This was, however, not by chance. A chance visit to a bar in Delhi gave Bhupinder the idea of selling coffee in a beer bottle. 

Like most millennials, he was drawn to the premium coffees served at the likes of Starbucks, Cafe Coffee Day, and Barista. However, like most middle-class Indians, Bhupinder was unable to afford premium coffee on a regular basis. 

Thus, the idea of Theka Coffee was born – freshly brewed 100 percent Arabic coffee served in a beer bottle and priced at Rs 100. 

Bhupinder started Theka in September 2017 by selling coffee on the streets. He would park his car in the Sindhubhavan Marg in Ahmedabad and sell coffee to customers passing by. 

Theka roasted, brewed, and served three variants of coffee – Palangtod or the strong and dark roasted coffee, Next level or the medium-roasted coffee, and finally, Coffee ki Jawani or the light-roasted coffee. 

Source: Theka Coffee

Besides these basic coffees, Theka has nine other flavoured coffees: Pataka Popcorn, Desi Santra, Minto Rani, Nut-Khatt, Chocolatey Patola, Berry Pia, Angrezi Tharra, Kala Gora, and Chota Bomb. The brand’s USP lies in selling “freshly brewed premium coffee at an affordable price”. 

Gradually, over the next two and a half years, Bhupinder adopted the franchise model and opened 14 Theka cafes in high streets and malls of not just Ahmedabad but also in Pune, Jaipur, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Bhuj, Baroda, and Anand. 

Across these outlets, he claims that he was doing about Rs 3 lakh of business every month. 

And the fall…

Excited to keep the business growing, Bhupinder overlooked high capital and operational expenditure associated with opening cafes on high streets. High rentals, cash burn, and the ultimate threat – the COVID-19 pandemic — proved fatal for Theka. 

“The initial months of lockdown meant zero business but I had to keep paying Rs 1.25 lakh of rent for our spaces in the malls… I had burnt all my savings and had to sell my car as well,” recalls Bhupinder. 

As a result, Theka had to shut shop. 

By June 2020, all 14 outlets of Theka had to be shut down due to a lack of business and operational capital. To top it all off, Bhupinder’s mentor, co-founder, and partner decided to quit the business at a time when the startup was in the middle of debt. 

Business rebooted 

Despite the business going to an absolute standstill, Bhupinder kept going. “I never gave up on the brand. I did not know if it would ever work again but I kept doing what I had to do without holding any regrets,” he says. 

After the first wave of the pandemic subsided a little, he started from scratch. He bought a cart and parked it in Sindhubhavan Marg, the origin of Theka, to restart the business. “On the first day, I sold about seven bottles of coffee,” he recalls. 

Subsequently, with the rise and fall of the different COVID-19 waves, the business was doing less than average. After three months, the number rose and Bhupinder sold coffee worth Rs 2,000-3,000, daily

Having learnt from his past mistakes, he decided to not invest much capital and decided to expand the business organically. Bhupinder placed four thelas or carts in four different locations in Ahmedabad to further grow his coffee chain. 

The fame 

Fast forward to January 2022, Bhupinder got shortlisted to pitch Theka on the Indian television show Shark Tank. While he did not manage to get the investment, he gained much more from the fame. 

Today, Theka records an average sales worth Rs 15,000 from every outlet, every day. Furthermore, the coffee startup recently raised Rs 2.5 crore in a round led by a Dubai-based VC firm Zenith Multi Trading.  

More interestingly, ever since the episode of Shark Tank was aired, Bhupinder has been receiving collaboration opportunities with other companies as well. Recently, Microsoft asked Theka to operate a cart from the company’s office campus in Bengaluru. 

Reliance approached him with a business tie-up. The entrepreneur has decided to go ahead with the latter and going ahead, Theka will be launching and operating its carts inside 10 Reliance retail stores in Mumbai. 

Speaking of future plans, Bhupinder says he wants to take Theka pan-India. By next month, the entrepreneur has plans to launch Theka carts across Kolkata, Pune, Gurugram, Surat, and Chattisgarh, among other Indian cities.

“The enthusiasm to keep going, and the emotional strength to deal with failures was built in me because I started out early. I would love to repeat this journey…even if I were offered Rs 100 crore at 14 years of age, I would still choose this over the money,” Bhupinder signs off. 
Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta

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