In The Guardian, John Harris discusses the town of Totnes in Devon, which is known for some very progressive ideas (among which is issuing their own currency, which is good at about 70 shops in the town). The residents there are trying to stop the massive chain of Costa from moving in and driving their (42) locally-owned-and-operated coffee shops out of business.
Totnes’s local economy looks to be in reasonable health, which is surely down to the fact that it is about as far from being what we now call a “clone town” as could be imagined. The local record shop, Drift, is mind-bogglingly great: the kind of place that you’d think was amazing if you found it in New York. The quality and diversity of restaurants is amazing. Most pertinently, the town has 42 independently run outlets that serve coffee, and – so far – not a single branch of any of the big caffeine-selling multiples.
Now, though, Costa – whose most visible slogan remains “Saving the world from mediocre coffee” – is on its way, as part of programme of expansion that will look either worryingly aggressive or admirably ambitious, depending on your point of view. Certainly, it seems to be bucking the prevailing trend of our flatlining economy, opening scores of new outlets while independent coffee shops are truly feeling the pinch.
A fully owned subsidiary of the food and hospitality conglomerate Whitbread, it currently operates 1,400 British outlets, and recently announced plans for 350 more. Thanks also to a snowballing presence in petrol stations, pubs and motorway services, its logo is becoming inescapable, which is exactly the point: the chief executive, Andy Harrison, has talked about increasing the number of branches to 2,000, and thus making them ubiquitous. “People really don’t want to walk very far for a coffee,” he has said. “We can have them a couple of hundred yards apart on a really busy high street, then another at a retail park and another at the station.”