Bewley’s Cafe and Tea Rooms in Grafton St. as well as a number of other locations is closing down. It’s a shame. It’s another tradition gone on a main street that is now full of foreign chain stores.
Bewleys has been at the edge before. Around 1985, the then Taoiseach (prime minister) Garret Fitzgerald stepped in to save this Irish tradition. For a time, it was the only state-run teahouse west of the Iron Curtain. After a few years, it went back into private hands, as part of a local catering company.
The Grafton St. cafe was opened by Ernest Bewley in 1920. There were many changes in formats over the years. It was originally a table service operation, but self-service became the mainstay over the years.
It is a fantastic space. There is a high ceiling and a balcony. The room is dominated by enormous stained glass windows designed and painted by Harry Clarke in an Art Deco style.
In the late nineties, the company tried to turn the main cafe into a table-service restaurant. They bought nice art, changed the uniform and generally tried to clear the riff-raff out. They spent millions on it. To fund it, they sold the premises and leased it back. This freed up some cash for the refurbishment, but left the cafe vulnerable to future rent increases.
The Bewleys refurb was beset with disasters. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. It took longer than expected. It looked over-designed. It alienated the traditional customers. The company couldn’t get the staff they needed because of the boom, and had to try and get people from abroad.
Everything seemed to be unlucky. I remember one morning I was there for breakfast. Behind me I heard a loud scream. I turned around and saw a customer standing beside his table soaked. There was water gushing from the bar that had been placed in the corner of the room. The poor guy was taking his shirt off to wring out some of the water. The food had a reputation of being hit-and-miss too.
Eventually, the cafe was returned to its original self-service format. This worked a bit better, but still didn’t really cut the mustard. The operation was famously inefficient. A worker had to go up two floors to get extra cups when the restaurant got busy. There were always enormous queues. There wasn’t any innovation going on – Bewley’s were back selling essentially the same thing as they had been selling 15 years previously, when I was at college and visited regularly. (They used to open late then too.)
At the same time as this, Dublin and the world were undergoing a cafe boom. Coffee shops were becoming a glamour business. The product was moving upmarket, and customers were getting used to paying a couple of euros for a drink and a few more euros for a small snack or sandwich. But for some reason, Bewley’s just couldn’t get its act together.
The company is blaming the demise on the smoking ban and on the preferences of customers. But that’s just rubbish. The cafe is always pretty busy. People love Bewleys, even if the food and drink served aren’t anything special. The company should just take responsibility for making a mess of it.
It will be interesting to see what happens next. The owners might like to lease the property to a chain as a shop, but the planning permission on the building may not allow this to happen. The restaurant use will probably have to be maintained in some way.
One possibility I see is that Starbucks might take over the premises and make it the flagship store in Ireland. They could then sublet the upper floors and one of the entrances to a bookstore. It would certainly be a comfy convenient place to buy a book and have a coffee of an afternoon.