It is a strange business model, selling coffee.

The Costa coffee shop, very much like the Starbucks coffee shop, is somewhere primarily selling coffee. It is made in a number of carefully prescribed combinations with tight controls on the way the franchise works and what exactly they sell.

The barista makes the coffee using a standard machine with milk, and steam, and coffee, and extras like syrups and cinnamon topping and so on. All very consistent, and nice. Apart from a lack of Marmite Paninis outside the UK Starbucks, it is all very standard.

But really - nothing it beyond a coffee machine here. The whole franchise, either of them, could be a machine, and would be if not for the love we all have of "the experience".

The coffee you buy is well defined and controlled and could really just be the product of a coffee machine, or a bank of ten of them for much faster service. Why do we need "barisas"?

So really what is the point of it all? Well, the whole experience is somehow what matters.

I go to any costa or starbucks with my wife within several hundred mile radius and she will have been there and they will be making her coffee before she gets to the till - not a word spoken and she has hers, and mine, served up. The people make it happen. They chat (not about her order, as they know that), and they make the coffee and serve it.

It has struck me for some time that they need systems so you wave your costa or Starbucks card at the start and it knows a "Sandra order" even if new to that location / franchise. But to be honest, I am not sure that would help.

It is amazing how they have made a business out of something a coffee machine could really just do. Yes, it is nice coffee, IMHO, but is not something a machine could not just make. We have deliberately non-automated machines and involve people in this just for the experience, and somehow that works.

I do wonder of the future - what happens when an interactive "human faced" robot is serving your coffee and chatting with you. It will come, but is that the future? Somehow the "coffee machine" is too impersonal, but maybe the "barista robot" will not be? Who knows. We live in interesting times.

P.S. To all Barristers, I did not mean the legal kind. Sorry for typo in first version of this blog.


  1. > It is a strange business model, selling coffee.

    I reckon they actually lease Wi-Fi and power, using coffee-flavoured tokens...

  2. Coffee machine coffee isn't very good --- a good barista is way better.

    Of course, there's a whole other debate about whether Costa or Starbucks have good baristas.

  3. [Warning - very long comment.]

    What I think they do need to do in the short term (and is in theory now possible via Apple Wallet - but I've only heard of it being implemented in certain US stores and I haven't seen tech specs so I'm not sure exactly how it works) is be able to make a contactless credit/debit card payment and use your loyalty card in a single step. Right now you can scan the QR code from the app - though I've never bothered with that because frankly I think the process of loading up the app (and not being entirely sure *when* to scan / if it's gone through, given there's no customer screen) is much more awkward than just taking an actual Costa card out of your wallet and having them swipe it through the till. I still always pay with Apple Pay though - it doesn't really save much time and I'd never go out without my wallet - but I like getting the notifications (it's a useful extra proof of purchase and a reminder of how much you've paid - I've found it's made me conscious of how much I'm spending again. And so far, it's never rejected a payment, unlike the occasional/randomised chip+pin forced pin entry.)

    A few points on the business model - for us tea drinkers, a decent coffee shop will give you a proper china teapot and a milk jug. Has anyone invented a machine that can do that yet? This makes Costa my favourite of the coffee chains (unlike Starbucks who just put the bag in whatever size cup you've specified and make you go and add your own milk - which is awkward because you want to leave sufficient time for the tea to brew, plus when it has you then have to walk over to the counter and get rid of the teabag, unless you want a soggy mess on your table. Incidentally, Caffe Nero also do teapots, but someone wrote an amusing blog pointing out all the design flaws: https://davewhatt.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/teapot-design-for-beginners.

    Those automated Costa Express machines don't even do tea, as far as I know.

    We don't seem to have yet reached a stage where a machine can use non-plastic cups either. There's enough plastic cup waste without adding to it - again, Starbucks lose points here because they give you plastic cutlery for food, the knives rarely cut well enough and it's such a waste. I could be wrong, but do Starbucks employ fewer staff on average per store than Costa?

    Also, coffee shops arguably exist just as much for the food as the coffee? A machine could heat items up, but would you trust it to automatically? It'd also need to remove the packaging. What about cutting slices of cake etc, dealing with customers who want toast or toasted teacakes etc.

    Finally - I'm trying really hard to go to independent cafes rather than chains these days. If you're in a town centre you really ought to be able to find one. Went to a lovely coffee shop today for the first time; they took the order at the counter, I paid (contactless), then they brought me lovely loose brewed tea with carrot cake which was (a) homemade, (b) tasted nicer/fresher than the Costa equivalent (c) was a noticeably larger portion. It's nice being brought stuff rather than having to balance a tray, trying to avoid the tea spilling out of the teapot etc.

    Also they had clearly set the wifi up themselves - felt like a proper VDSL connection rather than the usual "I'm not at all confident if this access point is working properly" Costa/Starbucks/o2-wifi experience.

    Friendlier staff too - it's not that staff in Costa and other chains are "unfriendly" - far from it - however in my experience they always look really stressed. Independent coffee shop workers somehow seem a lot more relaxed.

    1. Android pay stores the loyalty card - even reminds you to use it in store. But it's curiously not linked.. you have to scan the QR code separately from paying.

      I suspect this is all on Costa not having joined up systems. I know there are startups like flux trying to help with this but I wonder at the person who initially set it up deciding not to link the data to start with..

    2. Those Costa Express machines pictured do "tea"... although I say that in the loosest of fashions as unless you enjoy drinking dirty dish water I really wouldn't bother! One of our customers runs a filling station and has one of the machines and the tea "syrup" come out of a bag next to the bags of sweet syrups. Not drinking coffee I took him up on his offer of drink just after he got it installed and manfully drank it before he asked me what it thought and told me I was the first person to finish the tea! :-)

    3. @anonymous

      The new Costa Express machines no longer do tea because it was voted universally awful and customers complained so much Costa decided to stop offering it at all.

  4. Well here's your problem. You're buying Coffee at Costa or Starbucks. There's a reason why Australians chased Starbucks out of the country - its terrible coffee.

  5. I personally think you get a better tasting coffee (Americano anyway) out of a Costa express machine at a Shell than you do at a Costa store. And the bonus is you don't get somebody trying to upsell you to buy a cake.
    And the 'experience' in Costa isn't all that great - there's invairiably a long queue because of slow staff who all seem to be getting in the way of each other, and dirty tables covered in empty cups etc.

  6. Starbucks staff are infuriatingly slow. And stop asking my bloody name - none of your f'ing business.

    Pret staff are the fastest.

  7. It's all a waste of money anyway in my opinion. People queuing for 20 minutes each morning and spending £4/day (which adds up quickly over a year) from their meagre salaries to have a fussy little drink made which they then cradle in a cardboard cup as they sleepwalk into the office each morning. Boring, boring, boring. Give me a can of lager from Aldi anyday.


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