SPILLING THE BEANS
Born in 1949 in Baselica, in the Parma province of Italy, the family emigrated to London when he was just 10.
They had to leave most of their possessions behind, but his father Oreste insisted they bring with them a massive traditional Italian coffee bean drum roaster.
Oreste then taught Sergio the trade of barista.
Coffee drinking became very fashionable in trendy London in the early and mid-sixties, but by the start of the 70s, it had gone out of fashion again. Tea drinking was back in Britain.
Oreste and Sergio realised it was impossible to get a decent cup of Italian coffee in London (except in their own home), so they set up business together in Fenchurch Street. They sold wholesale and to local caterers. They were instantly successful, especially with the Italian ex-pat community.
In 1976, Oreste stepped down and Sergio’s younger brother Bruno replaced him. They renamed their company ‘Costa Brothers Coffee Company’.
Sergio married Iolanda and they were to have three children, Marco, Monica and Tania.
By the late 1970s they were supplying not only caterers but delicatessens and Italian shops. They also sold coffee to the top London hotels – and delivered it in a traditional black London taxicab.
In 1978 the company moved to Lambeth, building a roastery on an empty plot of grassland.
In 1981 they opened their first shop, on Vauxhall Bridge Road in Victoria. The interior was dark wood with brass fittings (which became their trademark style). Sergio claimed to be first to sell espresso and cappuccino in London.
Business boomed. Sergio was passionate about coffee and believed it had to be exactly right. He created a blend he called ‘Mocha Italian’ , which remains the signature blend for Costa coffee to this day. It took Sergio a blind tasting of 112 blends before he felt he had got it right.
It requires 6 parts arabica bean and1 part strong robusta, roasted for 18 minutes. The milk and water have to be at exactly the right temperature.
Any new shop in London was opened with elaborate and extravagant ceremonies, attracting the press and public alike.
In 1985 he bought a reluctant Bruno out. It soured their relationship. Bruno set up his own company, but from that moment refused to ever drink a cup of Costa coffee again.
Sergio personally trained the Costa Chief Coffee Taster, Gennaro Pelliccia. So important to the business was Pelliccia, that Sergio had his tongue insured for £10 million by Lloyds of London. This was the highest ever insurance for a specific part of the body, beating David Beckham’s legs and Michael Flatley’s legs.
In 1995 he was bought by Whitbread, becoming a subsidiary company. He was not bitter about the sale but was just determined to enjoy life. He bought a house in Monte Carlo.
The company opened its first international Costa in 1999, in Dubai.
In 2009, the one thousandth store in the UK was opened – in Cardiff.
The following year, 2010, Costa overtook Starbucks as Britain’s premier coffee seller with 37.6% of the market.
It also bought out ‘Coffee Heaven’, which led to another 79 stores being opened.
In 2018, Coca Cola bought out Costa for £3.9 billion.
At the time of Sergio’s death in 2022, Costa was based in Dunstable and was the UK’s largest coffee outlet (2422 stores) and the second largest in the world (5,400 stores). It employs 18,400 people.
And yet, strangely, there is not a single Costa Coffee outlet in the USA.
Sergio died at his home in Monte Carlo.
RIP – Real Italian Perculation