Costa Coffee: Where The Brownies Began

Brownie Basics

Well, here it is. Fifty brownies. For my fiftieth, I’ve come to Costa Coffee to drink their coffee and eat their brownie. It isn’t exactly a joyous occasion.

You can’t ever go home again.

Brownie Backstory

Food is important.

I used to not really like brownies, and probably the best evidence I can give for this is that I would stuff my face with tubs of Sainsbury’s brownie bites for the sugar rush and nothing else. I’m obviously very different now and part of that can be attributed to growing up, which is a process by which your tastes tend to become more diverse and complex (or so I think – I still have a lot of growing older to do).

But it’s not as straightforward as just tastes changing with age. I can also point to a huge number of discrete events, dishes, places, occasions that have all had a distinct, specific, measurable impact on me, changing both my understanding of what food is and what food can be, adding another entry to my roster of tastes or rewriting what came before. Just some examples, off the top of my head:

  • Smoked Wensleydale cheese, tried as a teenager, showing me both that I did like cheese and that there was a lot more to cheese than Cheddar and Red Leicester
  • My dad’s risotto recipe, at the time completely incomparable to any other meal I knew of, and later when he taught me how to make it
  • My uni flatmate’s risotto recipe, which I think was the first time I really grasped what you can do with herbs and spices
  • Spaghetti with mushrooms in Santiago: not only did I realise I liked mushrooms, but I also didn’t need to eat meat to eat a meal
  • My first ever rare steak in Helsinki. Every steak I’ve ever ordered since has been in pursuit of reliving that first one
  • The first pint of ale I ever drank in Bristol, when I truly understood that beer need neither be fizzy or tasteless
  • The original Costa Coffee brownie

I probably can’t describe this with mere words, but let me try. This was a chocolate brownie with white chocolate chips in it, and nothing more complicated. But it was perfectly executed. The brownie was soft and moist on all occasions, no matter what Costa you visited, no matter first thing in the morning or five minutes before closing time. The texture as you bit in was sublime, your teeth sinking blissfully through, occasionally biting into a white chocolate chip. The flavour was sweet without being cloying or overwhelming. Both the chocolate in the brownie batter and the white chocolate chips were obviously good quality. It looked great, with a smooth dark cross-section, and a lighter coloured ‘crust’ that didn’t affect the texture one iota. It was reasonably-sized, reasonably-priced, and the best damn cake you could get in Costa – probably the best brownie you could buy in any national or international chain in the country. And I frequently extolled its virtues as such. I’d frequently find excuses to treat myself to a Costa coffee so that I could also treat myself to a Costa brownie. Everyone I had try the brownie agreed with me, as well – up to and including my girlfriend when I first moved to London, who told me that she didn’t like brownies, and then when I talked her into trying a small bite of my Costa brownie, proclaimed that she was wrong and she loved brownies. And she tried to eat the rest of mine too. But who can blame her?

Costa brownies were heaven in a cake the whole time I lived in London doing my PhD, and for a few years afterwards. Then, one Friday, I had been working a long week in Southend and decided to treat myself to a coffee and brownie for the train ride home. But something was wrong with the brownie? Instead of my reliable dependable square of joy, I had something chalky and chewey and fake-tasting. This was extremely disappointing, but at the time I just assumed that that one Costa in Southend train station had had supply problems or something. I clearly didn’t want to believe the awful truth.

However, on Monday the brownies were the same crappy sort (I don’t think I bought one: the appearance was sufficiently obviously different). And when later that week I ventured into another Costa down the high street, same problem. The kicker came when I went for an afternoon coffee in a South London Costa on the weekend, and saw the same hateful excuses for brownies, squatting in the counter like they belonged there. And as if they would stay there forever from now on. Which they have.

Costa had the best brownie you could get, outside of a true brownie specialist, and they threw it away.

It was a little while before it occurred to me to search the Internet to see if my experience was unique or if others felt how I did. With a few different phrasings of “what happened to costa brownies” or “who ruined costa coffee brownies” I discovered I was far from alone. Lots of regional newspapers (for some reason) were picking up on the brownie recipe change at Costa, and at the hundreds of people who were unhappy enough about it to complain to Costa’s publicity department on Twitter. I had a look at Costa’s responses, and this is the part of the story where I move from disappointment to actual anger.

(If this seems like overkill, remember that at the top of this I said “Food is important” and you didn’t disagree!)

Let me preface this with: I don’t envy anyone who has to run a Twitter account for a major brand. It’s a tough job. You have very little control over what you get to say, because people several layers away from you in the company are pushing some meaningless corporate bullshit and your job is to parrot it to the world. Meanwhile, you’re also a point of contact for all sorts of people to complain at you specifically about the brand that you’re getting paid a pittance to represent. Some of these complaints might be legitimate and you might be able to help: I imagine that’s mildly satisfying when it happens. A lot of the complaints are probably just people venting on Twitter about something unrelated and you’re sort of being involved in it for no real reason. The worst, though, must be when the complaints seem legitimate or at least genuine, and you’re not really allowed to say or do anything about it, because of that afore-mentioned corporate line that you have to stick to.

That said, there are better and worse potential responses. Let’s look at three examples, which I’ll call the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

Sorry you don’t like [the brownie] Martin, I’ll share your feedback with our food team to take this into account

Charlee

This is honestly about the best you’ll get. You figure that whoever’s responsible for changing the brownie recipe, they want to sell more brownies to their customers (or at least make more money doing so). Passing on feedback from those who hate the change isn’t just good business sense, it’s also the only thing you can really do so that the customer feels listened to. Thanks for your efforts Charlee, I know the brownie change isn’t your fault.

The Bad

Sorry that you’re not a fan. This is the new and improved recipe so no plans to bring back the old one. I will pass your comments onto our food team though

Natalie

Natalie, Natalie. Look. It’s good of you to give it to us straight, that Costa’s not planning on reversing their terrible mistake. I’m sure that ‘new and improved’ is how you’ve been ordered to describe this recipe: that’s a phrase that screams ‘corporate bullshit’. But think about what you’re actually saying here for a second. Someone comes to you and says “I don’t like the new recipe, because it’s worse than the old one.” Your response is “I’m sorry to hear that. The new recipe is better than the old one.” Do I get the sense you actually read my complaint? Do I really think you’re going to pass my comments onto the food team? Or am I obviously being fobbed off with a cookie-cutter response because in reality the ‘improvement’ in this recipe is that Costa doesn’t need to spend as much money on their brownies and is happy to lose a bunch of brownie customers because it thinks it’ll still make more money with a sub-par product?

(For clarity, none of these responses were literally aimed to me. I am employing a rhetorical device.)

Still. Natalie’s done better than…

The Ugly

Our customers fed back that they wanted us to create the ultimate brownie; a perfect balance of rich and gooey. After months of perfecting the new recipe, we’re unveiling the new addition to our sweet counter, which has endured testing to ensure it ticks all the elements of a show-stopping brownie.

Costa spokesperson

Dear Costa spokesperson,

I fucking hate every word of this statement.

It’s all such an obvious lie that I feel like you’re not even trying. The problem is that this is the statement you’re peddling to your customers who have already expressed their unhappiness with your new brownie. You already had the ‘ultimate brownie’ as you describe it, and you’ve replaced it with something that everyone is saying is worse. You’re taking a sycophantic press release and treating it like it’s a rebuttal to actual customer feedback. Your whole statement drips with contempt for those who have actually eaten and disliked the new brownie. You are gaslighting them. You are trying to tell them that their own tastebuds are wrong.

Fuck you, fuck this brownie, and fuck you again for making me eat another one so that I could warn the world against it in blog form.

Brownie Points

Taste: It’s bad. It doesn’t taste like it’s been made with real chocolate, rather as if it had been filled with some sort of chocolate substitute. The sort of thing you’d expect to find in a ‘chocolate-style candy bar’. To compensate, it’s been pumped full of some sort of sweet substance. I say this because even the sweet taste is fake somehow, as if real sugar was beyond them. It’s sickly and cloying and I hate it. 1/10

Texture: It’s bad. The main part of the brownie is thick, heavy, dense, chewy and unsatisfying. It takes a surprising amount of force to bite through it and it brings little satisfaction. There’s no chocolate chips or anything else in the base to improve this. The crust is more like a… skin? Dry, crumbly, unpleasant. Basically: there’s two ways a brownie can go wrong, two extremes of different brownie textures. This brownie does both. At the same time. Incredible! 1/10

Presentation: It’s bad. There’s nothing exciting to say about this brownie. It’s got a surprisingly ugly cross-section, given that one thing you should be able to get from this sort of dense base is that smooth side that you know I love. The old brownie would always have a beautiful cross-section, usually with a few white chocolate chips on display to add visual interest. This has nothing. It gets a pity point for Costa being a decent place to sit in, enjoy a cortado, and eat something, but that’s it. 1/5

Value: It’s £1.90. This is cheaper than many coffee shop brownies, but not by a particularly huge factor, and the size of the brownie is small these days. Smaller than it used to be, no cheaper than it used to be, and much, much worse than it used to be. Bad Costa brownie, you can have 2/10

Fudge Factor: Well, this is essentially the “How petty can I be?” section. First, I considered giving this brownie enough negative points to make its score 0. Then, I considered giving it the same number of negative points as the “Not Really Brownies” get. Then it occurred to me that I could give it essentially infinite negative points if I wanted, and that seems silly. So I won’t go this far. But this brownie is the result of a process that got rid of what might have been the best brownie I’ve ever eaten: I’ll never know for sure, because I’ll never get to eat that brownie and mark it against the scoring system on this blog. This needs to be noted. This needs to count. -3/5

Thanks, I Hate It: 2

Should I Buy And Hahaha I Couldn’t Even Say It

I’m not sure in general if boycotts really work. They tend to financially affect people who aren’t responsible for whatever caused the boycott, and they rarely lose the company enough money for them to actually change their behaviour anyway. Before long, the furore dies down, the bad thing continues, and nothing much is gained.

So I can’t really claim that one should boycott Costa for this brownie. I mean, I don’t. I still drink Costa coffee sometimes, and eat other things from Costa.

But one thing boycotts are good for is for yourself. If a company does something that you particularly don’t like, or can’t stand for, then you don’t need to necessarily believe that boycotting it or them will change their behaviour for good. Your life can still improve by refusing to put up with their bullshit. For example: my experiences of flying have been uniformly better since I started boycotting Ryanair. And in a similar vein, unless by some miracle they go back to their old recipe (or change their recipe in a way that makes me think it’s worth giving it another shot), I will never buy and eat another Costa brownie again. And I suggest you don’t either.

Closing Thought

I went to the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the Tate Modern today – it was good!

2 thoughts on “Costa Coffee: Where The Brownies Began

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