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Costa: the coffee plant built over ruins.

Costa: the coffee plant built over ruins

The address is Old Paradise Street, but it has to be said that the neighborhood isn't as attractive as it sounds. It's to be found in the borough of Lambeth in London--in fact, just around the corner from the legendary Lambeth Walk, featured in the hit Broadway musical "Me and My Girl." But the twisting, narrow streets are dominated by the huge brick railway arches, and every few minutes a train goes rattling by overhead, shaking the dim little workshops that are housed underneath.

It comes as a pleasant surprise then, when you finally locate the bright new, architect-designed headquarters of the Costa Brothers Coffee Co., opened last December and only a short walk away from the original, slightly Dickensian roastery. As it happens, the new premises should have opened years ago, but soon after the contractors started work on the site they uncovered the foundations of a series of buildings dating from the long Roman occupation of Britain, so the entire project had to be halted while the archaeologists carried out an inch-by-inch survey.

Not that managing director Sergio Costa was in any position to complain, since the problem was created in the first place by his own forebears. The Costa family originally came to London in the early 60's from the Borganoro valley in Italy. The Costa operation, a combination of carefully styled "coffee boutiques," franchise outlets and a healthy list of high-class hotel and restaurant clients, began because of an encounter more or less straight out of Dale Carnegie.

"At the beginning of the 60's, I was a singer with a cabaret band called `I Rebelli,' the Rebels, and although we used to perform in West End clubs the money was poor, and to make a proper living I had to have another small job in the financial district of London, the City," explains Sergio. And then came the Chance Encounter of the Commercial Kind.

"I more or less bumped into a man who was struggling with some heavy cases, so I helped him to carry them into his premises. He was a city coffee roaster; we had a cup of coffee or two, and he ended up offering me a job in his coffee firm, at 25 [pounds] a week." The man and the enterprise were ideally matched.

"Because of all my connections in the local Italian community I managed to double the business, and he gave me a 25 percent shareholding. It was the first time I ever sat in a big city boardroom. But he wanted to relax, to enjoy his golf and cricket, so in the end I gave back his shares and set up on my own in small premises under Fenchurch Street station, in the older part of the City. We called ourselves Costa Coffees because we couldn't thing of anything better." Sergio now has 99 percent of the company and his wife Yolande the remaining one percent.

It was the right time for a new coffee service, and especially an Italian one. This was the time of Britain's great coffee bar boom, when Youth with a capital Y first began to display its independence by drinking endless cups of frothy cappucino while discussing the woes of the world and listening to very early British rock performers.

But then, almost overnight, the coffee craze evaporated, as young people took to less conventional pastimes.

"The espresso era just collapsed," recalls Sergio. "Gaggia stopped doing business with Britain, and the local Faema operation went into liquidation. So I decided that the best thing would be to teach the British to make good coffee on their own." He had comforting memories of Italian coffee, but then he discovered that it didn't at all taste like it used to at home. He solved this mystery simply, by taking three gallons of London water to Italy, where it made a predictably evil brew, and then bringing back three gallons of Italian water, which produced an excellent cup.

"So, I began to experiment and in the end we found a blend that suited the hard London water. We called it Mocha Italia, and we've stuck to it ever since. In fact, it accounts for around 86 percent of all our sales. It's a blend of seven origins--South American, with a little African, and a medium-full roast."

To publicize his coffees Sergio tried to advertise the Costa name on the familiar, square-shaped London cabs, but at the time the licensing regulations prohibited this. So he bought six of the cabs for his sales force to use, and embellished with the Costa advertisements. "The local authorities made some threatening noises to start with, but in the end they let us alone, and nowadays all cabs are allowed to carry ads," said Sergio, with a satisfied smile.

To begin with, Costa concentrated on supplying hotels and catering operations, but after six years it chanced that Yolande Costa became a little bored with life. In 1975 Sergio took out a lease on a tiny, 184 square foot shop at London's big Victoria station, and Yolande tended shop.

"For a while I was afraid we mightn't take enough to cover the rent," recalls Sergio, "but then my father taught me how to make really good, old-fashioned Italian ice-cream. It had to be mixed by hand in one of the final stages, and although the customers were sometimes astonished to see me at it, it was good ice cream--just eggs, cream and sugar, all the best ingredients." But the coffee sold well, helped by useful ideas like the order formes that commuters could fill out in the morning, noting preference and quantity, to collect on the way home.

Using the same principle, and styling each new boutique individually to match its location, Sergio Costa has built up a chain of 20 outlets between London and Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. the city of Glasgow, which also has a substantial Italian population has three so far, and there are four in Edinburgh. Most are at mainline railway or important subway stations.

The most recent addition was opened at a new shopping mall at Reading station, west of London, in April this year, and Queen Elizabeth II was happy to a pay a visit to the new boutique when she opened the complex.

There are Costa boutiques overseas, too, in shopping malls in Dublin and in the Arab Emirate of Quatar, but the immediate growth is continuing in Britain, with a franchise operation that one of the country's biggest supermarket chains is testing in key stores.

What you will not see on any supermarket shelf, however, is a pack of Costa coffee; the company has set its face against joining the nerve-racking Battle of the Brands, where the big British and multinational coffee companies slug it out for market share with an unending barrage of high priced marketing. Instead, Costas concentrates on what it knows and does best. In addition to the boutique/franchise side of the operation, it supplies some of the country's best restaurants and hotels."

In addition to the catering packs of Mocha Italia in 250 and 500kg flavor-lock vacpacks, the company offers nine other "formulas," including Cappuchino, and French and Viennese blends. Its menu also incudes nine single-origin coffees, including the top Kenyas, Colombians, Costa Ricas and Sumatras, plus two water-process decafs. All come either ready ground or in whole-bean form.

It all seems to have progressed pretty smoothly, but the company has had to share all the industry's past woes. What did you do in 1976, when the prices went crazy, I asked Sergio.

"Apart from praying, you mean?"

With green prices now as low as they've been for years, Sergio Costa will continue to pursue his crusade of educating the British palate. At all the boutiques, anyone who buys a pound of coffee is treated to a cup of fresh coffee, and this has in turn helped no end to stimulate the takeout trade, which can account for anything up to 20 percent of turnover.

He faces the future with confidence, too...but with one important reservation. "Consumption of R&G coffee in Britain can only grow, but my fear is that with green prices the way they are the producers will be tempted to send over rubbish, because if the prices go too low they mightn't bother to grow the good stuff.

"That apart, there's still room here for quality and service. If you offer those you'll not die through loss of business."

PHOTO : Queen Elizabeth II visited the Costa Boutique in a new shopping mall in Reading, west of

PHOTO : London, in April. She was introduced to Yolande and Sergio Costa (left) after the opening

PHOTO : ceremony.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Costa Brothers Coffee Co.
Author:Clark, Richard
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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