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Bewleys Cafe in Grafton St. – end of a tradition

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.

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  1. I think Bewley’s was on the way out for a long time — crappy coffee, not-so-hot food, high prices…

    I could imagine that the smoking ban was the last straw, though, if they had a small cadre of faithful customers who’d been going there for a smoke and a cup of tea for 30 years.

    Maybe a Starbucks would work. But let’s hope they get better coffee and better baristas than they have over here — they’ve burned every single cappuchino I’ve ever had there 😉

  2. Yep, it’s all listed. As far as I know too, a new tenant would have to apply for planning permission to convert the caf? into a shop (which is what the papers are saying is going to happen).

    My own guess about the reason they don’t run it as a loss-leader is that it isn’t really a leader any more. There are other companies running far more comfortable, better-value coffee places. The cafes are beginning to hold the brand back, rather than pushing it forward.

  3. Hi,
    You can’t really be serious thinking that a starbucks would be a worthy replacement for Bewleys. Starbucks is to coffee what MacDonalds is to a burger. When you consider that you could have an Irish chain such as Butler’s Coffee in there, don’t you think that would be a better alternative? We should be hopeful that it will be replaced by something Irish, not some big American chain, which incidentally, is a loss maker in the UK market as this weekend’s Telegraph reported. My vote goes to Butlers. Superior coffee and what about those chocolates!

  4. I didn’t say it was an alternative I liked, I just said it was something that could realistically happen. It is unlikely (but certainly vaguely possible) that an Irish coffee chain would put up the key money and the rent for Bewleys. The margins just aren’t there. The future tenancy won’t be decided by democracy, that’s for sure.

  5. MacDonnalds burgers should take it over.
    they sell the same type of coffee and food
    and they would appreciate the nice buildings.
    MacDonnalds is also part of our heritage, what person under 30 that is not familure and fond of the big M

  6. Hi all,

    I am from the website committee of the save bewleys campaign, we have set up a number of committees under our Lord Mayor Michael Connaghan to do everything possible to ensure the survival of Bewleys. Make no mistake we are no fools and know that we face a serious up hill battle but we have a the support of all the groups on Dublin City Council. We have also secured the assistance of An Taisce, the National Trust Northern Ireland and a assembled a team that includes accountants, architects, barristers, surveyors, graphic designers, PR consultants, marketing professionals etc. If there is anything you can do to help ensure the survival of this great dublin institution please contact us or visit our website

    we have collected over 10,000 signitures in the last three days and built key relationships that I feel can bear fruit over the coming weeks & months.

  7. We are very sad about this news on Bewlwys And are eager to help in the campaign to help save it. Please keep us informed on what is going on

  8. ye,it is a shame to b around today.anther landmark in dublins history is going.i,m a kerryman and i,ve been living in dublin for last 25 years.i was never a frequent visitor to bewley,s but anytime my family came up,we always made it a point to parents loved bewleys in grafton st.shame to c so many jobs gone,just before the christmass n all.

  9. I can’t believe Bewleys is closing. I loved it when I visited Dublin for the first time last year. A lot of people who where on the same flight as us from Liverpool where also in there having breakfast My Grandma remembers it from her visits to Ireland from when she was a child and older. It will be a real shame when it goes.

  10. Sorry to hear of Bewley’s demise. I am originally from Limerick and live in Los Angeles. Independently owned coffee houses are almost non-existent here now.
    “Dublin can be heaven with coffee at eleven and a stroll on Steven’s Green” no longer means anything…if you are old enough to remember that song you will know what I mean. The country has changed utterly…not necessarily a bad thing mind you. Hope some young entrepreneurs bring back a local flavour to Dublin with more bistros and coffee houses!

  11. Hi Kevin…

    Went to the Save Bewley’s website, but there isn’t a contact email or any other info on who to contact re the campaign. Many people here in the U.S. would also like to help. If the campaign needs funds, you should make “Save Bewley’s Cafe!” t-shirts and sell them. We would buy them!

  12. Hi all,

    We are now a little more organised and have a really good website up and running

    Please sign our online petition

    We are looking for people to get involved with our sub committees please phone +353-85-7145439 to get involved or contact the Lord Mayor at Dublins Mansion House

    Thanks for all your support


  13. bewleys can not be shut down! the government have to do something about it to keep it open! and a mac donalds in its place? oh my god can u imagine that a cheap american burger joint in the place of one of our historical cafes?! no way!


  14. Good news,

    The City Council have passed a motion to prohibit either cafe to be used for any other purpose, all 52 Sitting Councillors have supported the save Bewleys campaign. At this point we need to take our campaign to national government to provide tax breaks or grants to ensure the survival of our beloved clattery, chattery, lofty cafes.

    Please sign our online petition and if you already have thank you

  15. Just think of those delicious croutons that we’re gonna miss out on if Bewley’s is gone!!!!!!!!! God Save Bewleys! PLEEEEEEASE!

  16. i knew that the council had passed a motion to help save bewleys, but i didnt know that it meant that those two spaces are now prohibited from being used for anything else, which certainly is good news! so that at least means that no other company can move in on it, which means we are all one huge step closer to saving bewleys!
    anyway i want to congratulate the lord mayor and the council and the save bewleys campaign and i support you 100% and i have signed the petition and encouraged others to do the same

  17. To all who mourn the passing of Bewleys, if more money had been spent their it wouldn’t have happened. Reminiscing about old establishments and traditions doesn’t help their till receipts.