History of Costa Coffee


© History Oasis
"Pura Vida."

—National Motto of Costa Rica

In the early 1970s, the UK was in the throes of profound socio-political change: economic challenges led to widespread strikes, and the nation grappled with its diminishing role as a global empire.

The countercultural revolution of the 1960s had transformed into a broader cultural awakening by the 1970s, with punk rock, new wave, and other artistic movements challenging traditional norms.

Against this backdrop of societal transformation and a burgeoning café culture, Sergio and Bruno Costa founded Costa Coffee in 1971, introducing a touch of Italian coffee craftsmanship to a London eager for cosmopolitan experiences and flavors.


espresso pop art
© History Oasis

In the twilight of the 1960s and dawn of the 1970s, Britain was undergoing seismic shifts.

The empire's sun had set, and the nation was grappling with its recalibrated role on the global stage. The economic turbulence of the era, marked by oil crises and industrial strikes, was juxtaposed with a rich cultural tapestry.

Punk rock was on the rise, rebelling against the establishment, while the ripples of the Swinging Sixties' cultural revolution were still felt in art, literature, and music.

Into this dynamic milieu, Sergio and Bruno Costa introduced Costa Coffee in 1971, bringing with them a cherished Italian tradition of coffee roasting.

The path was not devoid of competition.

London, with its cosmopolitan allure and burgeoning café culture, was already home to various wholesalers who had established rapport with restaurants and elite establishments. Companies like Lyons and Kenco had secured their footprint, each offering their unique blends and flavors to an increasingly discerning British palate.

Undeterred, the Costa brothers recognized an untapped niche—the desire for authentic Italian espresso in a market dominated by traditional brews.

Their venture, starting as a wholesale coffee roastery, targeted restaurants and luxury hotels, venues that would appreciate the nuanced craftsmanship of their blends. By prioritizing quality and the authenticity of their Italian heritage, Costa Coffee not only carved out a space for itself amidst rivals but also played a part in shaping the UK's evolving coffee culture.


Costa Coffee's signature blend
Source: Costa Coffee

In the vast landscape of the 1970s coffee world, the intricate art of coffee blending was both a science and an alchemy.

The UK, traditionally steeped in a culture of tea, was witnessing a slow but sure renaissance in its coffee consumption. The market was dotted with blends that catered to the British palate, often leaning towards milder flavors, with companies like Lyons and Kenco leading the way with their traditional offerings.

What the Costa brothers sought was different.

Their Italian heritage brought with it an affinity for bolder, more aromatic blends reminiscent of the espresso savored in the piazzas of Rome and Milan. Sergio and Bruno's odyssey of flavor exploration led them through 112 different coffee concoctions.

Finally, in the Mocha Italia blend, they captured the essence of their homeland: a rich, robust flavor with hints of caramel and a smooth finish.

While other blends of the time catered to the British penchant for milder coffee, often diluted with milk or sugar, the Mocha Italia stood out as a beacon for those seeking an authentic Italian experience.


Costa Coffee shop
© HIstory Oasis

The late 1970s marked a transformative era in London's café scene.

At the time, many establishments in the city, while serving coffee, still held onto the vestiges of post-war Britain—practical, utilitarian, and often lacking the ornate details of Continental Europe.

London's coffee shops, such as the emerging chains and local establishments, leaned towards straightforward interiors, emphasizing functionality over ambiance. There was a simplicity, perhaps a touch austere, reflecting a British sensibility that prioritized the coffee and company over the surroundings.

It was against this backdrop that the Costa brothers introduced their café in 1978.

Their choice of Vauxhall Bridge Road, with its bustling traffic and proximity to the heart of London, signified their ambitions. Stepping into the Costa Coffee shop was akin to being transported to a Milanese café or a Roman espresso bar. The gleaming marble countertops spoke of opulence, a sharp contrast to the wooden or plain tables commonly seen in London's cafés of the era. The chandeliers, usually reserved for upscale restaurants or ballrooms, added an air of elegance, making the café experience feel like a luxurious escape.


A Costa Coffee ad featuring espresso
Source: Costa Coffee

Historically, the British populace's penchant was for tea, served in delicate porcelain, a ritualized act resonating with centuries of tradition. When it came to coffee, especially the stronger variants like espresso and cappuccino, the UK was still in the nascent stages of appreciation.

In the few establishments where one could find such Italian brews, these were often served in utilitarian vessels, sometimes even in the plain diner-style mugs that didn't do justice to the rich, aromatic brews. This manner of serving not only reflected a lack of familiarity with Italian coffee customs but also subtly affected the sensory experience of enjoying the beverage.

Costa Coffee's revolutionary decision to serve espresso and cappuccino in porcelain cups was emblematic of a larger cultural shift.

Porcelain, with its fine texture and thermal properties, provided the ideal medium to appreciate the warmth, aroma, and nuanced flavors of the brew. It elevated the act of coffee drinking to an experience akin to the refined tea ceremonies Britain was known for.

Their decision would set the tone for a new era, as other coffee establishments in the UK soon recognized the value of this tradition and began to adopt similar practices, thus enriching the British coffee scene in the process.


The Costa family
Source: Costa Coffee

The Costa brothers, Sergio and Bruno, having nurtured their coffee venture from a mere dream into a tangible reality by 1985, too, found themselves at such an intersection. The underlying reasons for such decisions are often multifaceted, interwoven with both personal aspirations and business dynamics.

By the mid-1980s, Costa Coffee had grown not only in size but in its influence over the London coffee scene. This expansion and success often bring with them the challenges of scale, differing visions for the future, and the intricacies of managing a burgeoning enterprise.

For Sergio and Bruno, who had jointly piloted the brand through its foundational years, these challenges might have manifested in distinctive views on the company's trajectory.

Sergio, possibly sensing new horizons or perhaps eager to imprint his individual vision upon the brand, felt the urge to steer Costa Coffee solo.

Bruno's decision to sell his share might have been influenced by his own set of aspirations, whether they were to explore other ventures, step back from the demanding life of entrepreneurship, or merely to witness Costa's journey from a comfortable distance.


Cappuccino pop art
© History Oasis

The 1990s bore witness to a burgeoning café culture, influenced heavily by globalization, increased travel, and a general desire among the British public for more cosmopolitan experiences. Against this backdrop, several coffee chains vied for supremacy in the rapidly expanding market.

Among the notable competitors was Caffè Nero, which, with its emphasis on providing an authentic European coffee house experience, quickly endeared itself to many British coffee aficionados.

Starbucks, the American giant, too, sought to imprint its global coffee culture on the British landscape, introducing not just its brews but also a unique café ambiance.

Pret A Manger, while not exclusively a coffee house, expanded rapidly during this period and became synonymous with quick, quality brews for the on-the-go Londoner.

Coffee Republic, another homegrown brand, also made significant inroads with its innovative offerings and trendy outlets.

Yet, under Whitbread's aegis, Costa Coffee embarked on an aggressive expansion strategy, leveraging Whitbread's deep knowledge of the British hospitality sector and its vast resources. Strategically placed outlets, a consistent quality of brew, and a distinct branding strategy that emphasized its Italian roots allowed Costa Coffee to resonate deeply with the UK market.

By the turn of the millennium, Costa Coffee's footprint was undeniable. Through a combination of strategic decisions, timely expansions, and a persistent focus on quality, Costa Coffee successfully outstripped its competitors, firmly establishing itself as the UK's premier coffee chain and setting a gold standard for café culture in the region.


Coca-Cola logo
Source: The Coca-Cola Company

The coffee chain, which had roots tracing back to a humble London establishment in the 1970s, had flourished to become an emblem of café culture in the UK and beyond.

Its acquisition by Coca-Cola in 2018, a global behemoth with a legacy stretching over a century, was a testament to Costa's unparalleled growth and prominence in the coffee industry.

Coca-Cola, primarily known for its carbonated beverages, had been observing the shifting global beverage landscape. With consumers increasingly leaning towards diverse beverage choices, especially in the realms of tea and coffee, the acquisition of Costa Coffee was a strategic move. It allowed the American giant to tap into the lucrative coffee market, which was experiencing burgeoning growth in both established markets like Europe and emerging markets in Asia.

From a historical perspective, this acquisition was emblematic of the evolving dynamics of global trade and commerce. Major corporations were no longer confined to their original domains but were expanding their horizons, seeking synergies and diversification.

Costa Coffee, with its vast network of stores, its established brand loyalty, and its expertise in the realm of coffee, presented Coca-Cola with an unparalleled opportunity to diversify its portfolio.

Moreover, Costa's commitment to sustainability and its intricate supply chain resonated with Coca-Cola's ambitions of enhancing its global sustainability efforts. The price tag of £3.9 billion was not just a reflection of Costa's financial success but also its potential to shape global coffee culture in the years to come.


A Costa Coffee ad in Russia
Source: Costa Coffee

As boundaries diminished and the world became increasingly interconnected, businesses, including coffee chains, sought to cater to an ever-evolving global audience.

Costa Coffee, beginning its journey on the bustling streets of London, soon recognized the unquenchable global thirst for quality coffee experiences.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Costa began to set its sights beyond the British Isles. The Middle East, with its booming urban centers like Dubai, became one of the first regions to embrace Costa outside of Europe. The cafés in these cities offered a harmonious blend of British coffee culture with regional nuances, a testament to Costa's adaptability.

Asia, particularly China and India, with their burgeoning middle classes and a growing appetite for international brands, became pivotal to Costa's global strategy.

In China, Costa endeavored to balance its signature offerings with local flavors, recognizing the nation's rich tea culture and adapting to its unique palate. Meanwhile, in India, Costa found resonance in urban centers where Western coffee culture dovetailed with India's historical love for cafés as places of discussion and debate.

Europe too saw an expansive growth of Costa, with countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary becoming familiar with the brand's signature Mocha Italia blend. In regions where coffee has been historically revered, such as Southern Europe, Costa brought its unique British-Italian fusion, distinguishing itself from native coffee traditions.


A Costa Coffee Mango ad
Source: Costa Coffee

Costa Coffee’s commitment to sustainability is rooted in a historical context where the late 20th and early 21st centuries saw an increasing global consciousness towards environmental and ethical business practices.

One of the most pronounced initiatives by Costa was its decision to invest in eco-friendly stores.

These establishments were designed to reduce energy consumption and prioritize renewable resources, thereby setting a benchmark for coffee retailers worldwide. As the problem of non-degradable waste escalated, Costa took the lead in the UK by rolling out an extensive cup recycling scheme, emphasizing the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' ethos.

In the realm of coffee sourcing, Costa showcased its dedication to sustainable practices by committing to the Rainforest Alliance.

This ensured that the beans they procured came from farms that adhered to rigorous environmental and social standards. Recognizing the historically precarious position of coffee farmers, often subjected to the volatility of global markets, Costa established the Costa Foundation.

This initiative went beyond mere trade, focusing on uplifting entire communities by investing in education, healthcare, and infrastructure.

Furthermore, their commitment to water stewardship, another critical environmental challenge of our age, manifested in initiatives aimed at conserving water within their operations and supporting projects that ensure clean water access in coffee-growing regions.

Their endeavors also extended to forging direct relationships with coffee growers. By doing so, they aimed to ensure fair prices and also facilitate the exchange of knowledge, helping farmers adopt sustainable agricultural practices.


Costa Coffee's olympic games sponsorship
Source: Costa Coffee

The decision to align with sports, particularly with esteemed institutions such as the UEFA Champions League, speaks volumes about Costa's vision to be more than just a coffee brand.

The UEFA Champions League, with its rich history stretching back to 1955, represents the pinnacle of club football in Europe.

Costa Coffee's association as its official coffee supplier since 2012 was a strategic move to weave its brand into the fabric of a cultural phenomenon. Each match, witnessed by millions globally, became an avenue for Costa to underscore its prominence not just within the realms of coffee but in the broader cultural milieu.

Furthermore, the London Marathon and the British Open Golf Championship are events steeped in history and tradition.

The marathon, a celebration of endurance and human spirit, and the golf championship, a testament to skill and precision, align with Costa's ethos of dedication, commitment, and passion. By sponsoring these events, Costa Coffee positioned itself amidst historical narratives, thus deepening its connection with audiences across varied interests.

This unique intersection of coffee and sports further cements Costa Coffee's legacy as a brand that continuously evolves while staying true to its rich heritage.