Brewing Success: Inside the Largest Coffee Chains

After water, coffee is the most popular drink in the world, and in the bustling heart of modern society, the coffeehouse has become a pivotal cornerstone. Around the world, people consume around two billion cups of coffee every day, and a lot of it is bought from the world’s largest coffee chains, but what is the biggest coffee chain in the world?

Building Big Engineering
19 January 2024

Americano, lungo, mocha, flat white, latte, ristretto or just a cup of plain old joe, coffee is an integral part of our lives. Coffee drinkers in the UK spend an eye-watering £4 billion a year in coffee shops and the contenders for the world’s biggest coffee chain are fuelling the fix.

These staggering figures not only highlight the ubiquitous nature of coffee in our daily lives but also cements its status as a major commodity. This prevalence underscores the immense influence coffee has on economies and livelihoods globally, impacting everything from small-scale farmers to global corporate giants.

At the forefront of this caffeine craze are the biggest coffee chains, entities that have become household names and integral parts of daily routines for millions.

With their blend of cultural influence, economic power, and global reach, the largest coffee chain in the world and the pretenders to its throne are not just serving hot drinks, they’re shaping the very landscape of global coffee culture.

Here are the world’s biggest coffee chains.

A Short History of the Coffee Shop

Coffee, water, and sugar in a coffee shop (Credit: Alys Tomlinson via Getty Images)

No-one is sure how and when coffee came into being. Some suggest it may have been discovered by accident around the ninth or tenth century, but it’s generally accepted that by the mid-fifteenth century coffee seeds were being roasted in the Middle East, specifically perhaps in modern-day Yemen. From there, coffee made its way west through the Balkan states, into Europe and across to the Americas, and east to Indonesia through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The original precursors to the biggest coffee chain in the world, known as qahveh khaneh, or ‘coffee house’ in Persian, opened in the fifteenth century. From there, the craze caught on. Coffee houses popped up all over Europe in the seventeenth century, and became important cultural and social centres, known as ‘penny universities’. For the cost of a coin, you could get a cup of coffee, read, play games, listen to stories and music and discuss world events, literature or science. Indeed little has changed in five centuries, aside, perhaps, from the price!

The culture of the coffee shop – or kaffeeklatsch in German – a place for people to gather socially, has been around for hundreds of years, but it was only in the second half of the twentieth century that coffee became seriously big business.

A list culminating in the world’s biggest coffee chain can be measured in a number of ways – by number of cups sold, revenue, or employees. For the purposes of this countdown, it will be measured by the number of locations around the world.

So sit back, grab a brew, and explore the biggest coffee chains in the world.

Espresso House

Espresso House in Copenhagen, Denmark (Credit: Bloomberg / Contributor via Getty Images)

Headquarters: Stockholm, Sweden | Founded: 1996 | Locations: Approx. 510

Scandinavia’s largest coffee chain and one of the largest coffee chains in the world, was founded in the Swedish city of Lund by Elisabet and Charles Asker. They couldn’t find a cosy coffee shop with good coffee and homemade pastries where they lived, so they opened one.

They started by baking everything they sold in their own kitchen but today, the baking is done on a more industrial scale in a factory in Malmö. Espresso House has been described as ‘Scandinavia’s Starbucks’ and they’re in each of the Nordic countries as well as Germany.

Costa Coffee

A close-up of a Costa Coffee cup (Credit: Matthew Horwood via Getty Images)

Headquarters: Buckinghamshire, UK | Founded: 1971 | Locations: Approx. 4,000

Italian brothers Sergio and Bruno Costa founded the eponymous coffee chain in the early 1970s as a wholesale operation supplying beans to caterers and coffee shops.

In 1981, the company opened their first coffee shop in Vauxhall Bridge Road in London and in 1995, the company was bought by hospitality company Whitbread. The 1,000th Costa store opened in Cardiff in 2009. In 2019, the company was bought by Coca-Cola for almost $5 billion.

Costa is the largest coffee chain in the UK, and there are Costa stores in almost forty countries, including Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Bulgaria and Malta.

Tim Hortons

Tim Horton's in Toronto, Canada (Credit: Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Headquarters: Toronto, Canada | Founded: 1964 | Locations: Approx. 5,500

One of the biggest coffee chains in the world, certainly Canada’s biggest, was founded by a former ice hockey player named Tim Horton and his business partner Jim Charade.

The chain originally sold burgers but quickly pivoted to donuts and coffee. In 1976 they introduced the Timbit, small fried donut balls, which have become a national and cultural icon in Canada.

Tim Hortons opened their 2000th restaurant in the year 2000, and the first store in the UK opened in Glasgow in 2017.


Dunkin' coffee shop, Kentucky, USA (Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Headquarters: Massachusetts, USA | Founded: 1948 | Locations: Approx. 13,000

Founded by American entrepreneur William Rosenberg as Open Kettle in Quincy – a small suburb of Boston – soon after the end of World War II, the name changed to the more recognisable Dunkin’ Donuts in 1950. By the early 1960s there were over 100 locations.

In 2019, the company rebranded to Dunkin’ to focus more on drinks. They still sell their legendary Munchkins donut holes, and with around 13,000 locations in over forty countries, Dunkin’ is one of the largest coffee chains in the world.

Luckin Coffee

Luckin coffee store in Yantai, China (Credit: CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Headquarters: Fujian, China | Founded: 2017 | Locations: Approx. 13,500

Luckin Coffee is a Chinese tech-focused coffee chain where customers have to download an app and pay for their food and drinks online. Within two years Luckin had more locations than Starbucks in China. While Luckin isn’t the world’s biggest coffee chain, it’s believed to be the biggest in China.


Starbucks Coffee on 42nd Street, New York City (Credit: Stephen Chernin via Getty Images)

Headquarters: Seattle, USA | Founded: 1971 | Locations: Approx. 33,900

By some distance, Starbucks is the biggest coffee chain in the world. Founded in 1971 by Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker, the trio opened their first store in Seattle’s Western Avenue.

The first iteration of the company’s name, Starbo, was chosen by a friend of the three who said that words starting with ‘st’ were powerful. It soon morphed into Starbuck, a character from the book Moby-Dick.

For the first few years Starbucks sold coffee beans rather than drinks, but by 1986 there were six branches across Seattle. Today, the company employs over 400,000 people and you can get a venti skinny half-caf cappuccino – or something similar – in over 80 countries around the world.

From Beans to Giants: The World’s Largest Coffee Chains

A close up of freshly roasted coffee beans. (Credit: Henrik Sorensen via Getty Images)

The journey to the world’s biggest coffee chain reveals a remarkable story of cultural integration, innovative business strategies, and a deep-rooted passion for coffee.

They influence coffee production practices, set market trends, and even play a role in sustainability efforts. These coffee giants have not only mastered the art of brewing the perfect cup, but have also become central to the day to day lives of billions of people.


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