Trending: Costa's grounds for world domination

Yesterday, Whitbread announced grande profits and expansion plans for its coffee brand. But how did it get so' everywhere'? Samuel Muston takes a sip and finds out

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Indy Lifestyle Online

When Sergio and Bruno Costa started supplying restaurants with coffee beans in 1971, the word "barista" was a misspelling rather than a job and pretty much no-one had ever uttered the words: "I'll have a medio mocha with chocolate sprinkles."

Now, those phrases slip off our tongue as easily as the high-street chain coffee goes down our neck.

On average we each spend £452.28 on espressos, cappuccinos and their cousins every year and, according to figures out yesterday, a big chunk of that goes to Costa Coffee.

Whitbread, Costa's owner, has just announced some fully caffeinated sales figures. The UK's biggest chain of coffee houses, which has almost 1,400 shops in the UK and 800 others elsewhere (including India and China), announced a 25 per cent increase in sales. The company also reiterated plans to open another 350 new stores this year and create at least 3,500 jobs.

The figures are all the more eyecatching because Costa is often thought of as the Microsoft of the coffee world: ubiquitous, much-used but not exactly loved. According to Peter Backman, MD of retail analyst Horizons, love isn't really necessary; convenience is key. "The coffee you buy in a coffee shop is, in absolute terms, inexpensive. People don't mind spending on it because it allows you to rent a space, to chat, to have a meeting, to rest your feet. And one of Costa's strengths is that it has paid better attention to that space in terms of service, training, barista-experience, cleanliness and product innovation (the flat white and so on). It copied Starbucks, and then went one better." The chain has also been shrewd with new openings. Increasingly it concentrates on transport hubs – where there is, "dwell time" – time which can be more pleasantly whiled away with a latte and a banana muffin.

A real driver of its growth, came about with the £60m purchase of Coffee Nation in 2011. You could often find these "outlets" in petrol stations, offering coffee from a machine. Costa rebranded them "Costa Express". Sales increased nearly 20 per cent.

According to Backman, though, this didn't detrimentally affect the main brand. Quite the reverse in fact. "By using the Costa brand they are giving themselves a much greater foot print. So there is additional spin-off growth in the main stores."

With this kind of success, though, comes steaming levels of dislike. Costa has reacted to environmental concerns by reducing the cardboard in its cups by 10 per cent and planning to change the adhesive used so they can be recycled by all local authorities.

Objections to some new openings have been fierce, too, despite each shop employing between six and 12 people. In the Suffolk town of Southwold this month, residents started a campaign to bat off the company's advances which was characterised by vituperation usually reserved for arch-homogenisers like Tesco.

While people may still crow about homogenisation, rewind to 1978 and the only coffee you were likely to get was instant, stewed, bitter and lukewarm. For helping to save us from that alone, we have reason today to – however grudgingly – thank Costa.

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