Costa Coffee Is Britain's Most Mediocre Cafe. Why Is it So Popular?

I spent a week drinking very milky flat whites to try and find out.

by Ruby Lott-Lavigna
06 February 2018, 2:33pm

Photos and composite by the author. Background image via Flickr user ashtonmartin

Costa Coffee is Britain’s most prolific and most forgettable chain. Despite having branches on every major high street; in motorway service stops, hospitals, petrol stations, and branches of Waterstones, it barely makes an impression. I’m sure I’ve been to Costa many times in my life—when stuck for a caffeine fix in Central London, at a service station off the M25, or killing time in a dreary hospital foyer—but I can't recall a single one of these visits. The shops are so inoffensively identikit that you could have an existential crisis in one, clutching a lukewarm chipotle chicken toastie to your chest as staff attempt to coax you out from under a table, and probably not remember it. Where were you when it happened? people will ask. Oh, you’ll think. Maybe a Pret?

It’s this ubiquity that has allowed Costa to become one of the most prolific coffee chains in Britain. There are 2,121 Costas across the UK—way more than its competitor, Starbucks, which has 884 stores nationwide. Last week, it signed an unprecedented product placement deal with soap opera Coronation Street, meaning that the on-screen town of Weatherfield will now have its own Costa. It has infiltrated the middle-class zeitgeist, with Guardian writers penning hefty features that try to answer the question, “Have we reached peak Costa Coffee?”

Public opinion would suggest: no, absolutely not. Even a 2017 BBC Watchdog investigation that uncovered traces of poo in Costa's ice supplies couldn’t knock the chain’s popularity. Last year, research by strategy group Allegra saw Costa voted Britain’s favourite coffee for the eighth year in a row.

Poo-gate and Corrie appearances aside, where did it all start for Costa Coffee? Like many chain eateries, Costa claims to have been founded by a mythical-sounding family of industrial Italian migrants. According to its website, it all began one grey day in 1971, when brothers Sergio and Bruno Costa set up a coffee roastery in South London and began selling the beans to coffee suppliers. In 1978, they opened the first Costa Coffee shop on Vauxhall Bridge Road, and after finding success here, expanded to open other branches across the UK. By 1995, Costa had 41 shops and was sold by Sergio (Bruno had left to start another venture) to British company Whitbread for an estimated £23 million. Fast forward 12 years and in March 2017, Costa made a pre-tax profit of almost £90 million.

Costa’s huge turnover should be testament to its quality, but for me, the coffee veers between very bad and actively offensive. But then maybe my problem is that I literally cannot remember the taste of a Costa coffee. Nor, for that matter, a Costa cake, Costa panini, or Costa ice drink that is basically a Frappuccino having an identity crisis. In order to rectify this and truly understand the chain’s popularity, I decided to immerse myself in its maroon mediocrity. I would bathe in its filter coffee (figuratively). What is it about this chain that everyone loves?

To begin: the coffee. According to Costa’s website, “there is never a dull cup,” which is probably the antithesis to my impression of their coffee. On a freezing Friday afternoon, I set off from the office in search of a branch to reacquaint myself with their definitely-not-dull lattes. I wander around in circles for about 15 minutes, presuming there’d be one at every turn. Eventually, I find a shop near Liverpool Street Station, built into an office building and framed on all sides by concrete. I almost miss it, but the instantly recognisable logo catches my eye and I head gratefully inside out of the cold.

An underwhelming branch of Costa in East London. All photos by the author.

Always a sucker for an aggressive marketing campaign, I opt for Costa's new coconut flat white, which is advertised on extremely colourful posters behind the counter. I stare lifelessly at the cake selection, deadened by the prospect of a soggy, oversized dessert. There’s a dry-looking brownie and a stale muffin. Maybe the shortbread slice?

“Do you want anything else?” the barista asks for the third time.

“No, that’s fine, thanks.”

I take my cup outside, sit down at one of the metallic tables, and take a sip. It’s sweet and coconut-y. It’s also definitely not a flat white, being far larger and milkier than the standard beverage. I sit in the cold for awhile, trying to take in a lasting impression of the maroon aesthetic and weird coffee.

Feeling none the wiser about Costa after my visit, I turn to Markman Ellis, academic at Queen Mary University of London and author of The Coffee-House: A Cultural History. What’s is his impression of the coffee?

“It has become less interesting over the years, and by less interesting, I mean worse,” Ellis says. “[The coffee] often tastes dull too, and a bit feral, as if the espresso machines haven’t been cleaned properly.”

Why then, is it so popular?

“It’s voted number one because it has so many outlets: everywhere you go, there’s a Costa or two, so lots of people know it,” says Ellis.

Just as I had suspected, Costa’s ubiquity perpetuates its popularity.

“Like Starbucks, it is very good at replicating itself,” Ellis continues. “They have the same interior decor, the same seats and tables, the same food, the same service, and the same coffee. Same, same, same.”

“Costa wants each shop to look and feel like the others, so that customers feel at home there, wherever they are,” he tells me. “The French philosopher Marc Augé calls this nonplace: a condition of late capitalism which encourages the development of places that are all the same, wherever they are.”

Keen to observe this comforting product of modern capitalism in action, I head to Costa again. It’s another freezing day so this time I take a seat inside, noticing a joke on the door on my way in: “No Smoking and No Dogs,” it reads, “and definitely No Smoking Dogs.” I chuckle. Good one, Costa, you got me there! I’m feeling more endeared to the chain already, so I order another flat white—without coconut milk this time—and stare, once again, hopelessly at the cakes.

I can now confirm that the flat whites from Costa are distinctly not flat whites. This time, my cup is huge and extremely milky, and I can barely taste the coffee. Nonetheless, I find a table next to what seems to be a hair consultation meeting between three men. I try and connect to the Wi-Fi. The hair consultation inexplicably continues, though I can't work out why a third man would be present, given that he is neither a hairdresser nor client. And also the fact that this is a coffee shop, not a hair salon. The internet is still not working. The music flits between saccharine pop and guitar sonatas that sound like they’re from one of those “Most Relaxing Songs of The Century” CDs you can only buy through a number on TV. I start to lose my mind. The coffee is too milky. The man doesn’t want his hair to look brassy. The internet won’t work.

Distinctly not a flat white.

Another Costa visit has left me stumped, so I email Ashley Rodriguez, the online editor of Barista Magazine, to see if she can help me decipher the chain’s popularity. It could be, she explains, to do with its democratic identity. “The ubiquity of Costa sort of rallies against the idea of exclusivity,” she says over email. “Everyone can enjoy it, and there's something for everyone. There's no barrier to entry.”

In terms of its future, will Costa continue to thrive? “I definitely think chains will be fine,” Rodriguez says. “They maybe won't grow at the speed that they have in the past, but they can still do things like go into small towns and underserved markets that independent coffee shops just can't do."

This just about chimes with Costa most recent financial figures. Despite being consistently popular among consumers, sales have been slowing. By mid-2017, overall growth at the company had largely drawn to a halt, and at the end of last year, it’s like-for-like sales had dropped by 1.5 percent. It is currently involved in a website and brand redesign, and in last year’s financial report, attributed potential struggles to “changes in consumer trends” that “may reduce the appeal of Costa if those trends are not properly anticipated.” Although parent company Whitbread’s total revenue was up by 8.2 percent in the beginning of 2017, Costa may not be driving that a year on.

Despite its dull coffee, predictable decor, and terrible, terrible music, people still love Costa. Maybe this blandness is precisely what makes it so lovable. It doesn’t pretend to be your friendly neighbourhood coffee bar or serve complicated AeroPress filter blends. It isn’t publicly known to avoid paying tax like Starbucks or cut employee working hours like McDonald’s. It’s, you know, fine, and as I continue to drink its coffee throughout the week, I'm hard-pressed to describe it any other way. According to a poll I posted on Twitter, 41 percent of my followers consider Costa Coffee “good enough,” firmly cementing the public opinion of the brand as "meh". Zero percent voted to say that it was “the best.”

Towards the end of researching this piece, I receive an unprompted message from my dad.

“Costa Coffee is a fucking disgrace,” he texts me.

“At least Starbucks know how to do a flat white.”