London, August 25:

Costa Coffee, Britain’s second-largest espresso bar chain, yesterday revealed bold ambitions to open more than 300 stores across the Indian sub-continent, heartland of tea-drinkers.

It hopes to steal a march on its much larger American competitor, Starbucks, which has created a worldwide network of more than 9,500 stores, becoming a bete noire for anti-globalisation campaigners.

Costa, an Italian-style coffee brand which is part of British leisure group Whitbread, plans to expand into India through a franchising deal with Devyani International, a group specialising in bringing western brands to India. Devyani and Whitbread are the local franchise operators for American brand Pizza Hut in India and the UK respectively. India is one of the few populous nations yet to fall to the still expanding Starbucks empire.

However, its executives have warned coffee-drinking remains a relative rarity in India, the world’s largest producer and consumer of tea. Domestic entrepreneurs have fostered a small but growing coffee bar culture, with New Delhi’s Barista Coffee Company among the successes, operating 130 Starbucks-style stores targeted at the burgeoning middle classes. Costa managing director Mark Phillips said, “This is a major deal for Costa and we’re delighted to be the first international brand to open in this fast-growing market. We are confident that our unique offering will be received well.” Starbucks has been operating in China for six years, where it has built a niche presence with more than 100 bars.

“It traditionally has been a tea-drinking country but we turned them into coffee-drinkers,” chairman Howard Schultz is reported to have told analysts last year. Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, a spokeswoman yesterday said the US firm had no plans for a similar missionary campaign to India.

A spokeswoman for Whitbread emphasised th-at the British group was not putting any capital behind the franchise-based expansion. Similar pacts have worked well for the British group in the Middle East, where franchisees operate 95 Costa Coffee bars.