WHEN cafe owner Bobby Ladher decided to offer free samples, he had no idea it would provoke threats from a franchise holder of one of the world’s biggest multi-national coffee shop chains.

But the Southampton businessman was left stunned when the boss of the neighbouring Costa offered to “go to war” with his small organic outlet.

And within an hour of staff at Power Gourmet, near the Bargate in High Street, handing out small smoothie samples to passers-by, Mr Ladher received an email from the shop next door threatening to report his cafe to the authorities.

Before he had a chance to respond, Robin Arkle, managing director of a string of Costa franchises that includes the High Street branch, sent another message saying he had informed Southampton City Council of the cafe’s “illegal sampling”.

In his second email, Mr Arkle, who accused Power Gourmet of resorting to “aggressive marketing tactics”, said: “If you wish to go to war, just let me know. Costa has very deep pockets.”

He added he would now “vigorously” object to the cafe’s application to put chairs and tables outside.

Stunned Mr Ladher, 32, who opened his business a month ago and said he had not realised sampling was breaching any bylaws, but had stopped immediately once told to by the council.

He said: “I was gobsmacked. I’ve never heard anything like it.

“We feel quite bullied. This is not the done thing from a worldwide chain.

“We’d had a really nice email before wishing us well, and surely a friendly chat would have been the right way forward?”

Costa, which boasts more than 1,300 branches in the UK and another 600 around the world, said it has “no direct control” over franchise owners, but does expect them “to maintain high standards in all aspects of operating their franchise business”.

In a statement, the firm said: “This type of behaviour is not something we condone.

“We value independent coffee shops in our industry as they have the same mantra as us, to deliver a great coffee experience. We regret that this incident has occurred.”

Mr Arkle said Power Gourmet has continued to flout the rules, and claimed its staff have tried to poach Costa customers, telling them its products are “rubbish and full of pesticides”.

He said he had no problem with competition, but had become fed up with what he described as Power Gourmet’s rule breaking.

He said: “I’m not going to get into any further dialogue with them. If they obey council guidelines I don’t mind what they do.”

Southampton City Council confirmed it spoke to Power Gourmet about sampling outside its cafe, but said it was unlikely to take any formal action against the business because it had so swiftly complied with requests.