Bewley's loss 'like a death in the family'

THE demise of Bewley's oriental cafés in central Dublin is "like part of Dublin dying", their emotional owner said yesterday.

The two remaining outlets on Grafton Street and Westmoreland Street will stop trading before Christmas with 234 job losses. Patrick Campbell of owners, Campbell Bewley Group described breaking the bad news to the staff as "very emotional".

He said of the closure: "It's like a death in the family. It's part of Dublin dying. It's a very sad morning for me and my family. We're devastated."

Over €12 million was invested in the business in the late 1990s but it had since run up losses of €4m.

The Campbell Bewley group attempted to find a buyer for its cafés before deciding to close down the Grafton and Westmoreland Street outlets.

The company's managing director Jim Corbett said last year they had looked at several options to stem the losses, including selling the businesses off.

"We would have approached people in the past year as to how the business could be partnered with other high street operations but those discussions came to nothing," he told the Irish Examiner yesterday.

"People are no longer able to spend a leisurely two hours drinking coffee, people want to get in and out quickly. The buildings don't lend themselves to getting large amounts of people in and out quickly."

The Grafton Street Bewley's has been open for more than 100 years.

For years the cafe was as much part of Dublin social life as the Shelbourne and Gresham hotels. However, its popularity has waned in the past 20 years and it was rescued from the brink of collapse by the Campbell group in 1986.

Mr Corbett said the company has looked at further revamps, including turning the Grafton Street café into a bar and restaurant, but said it was constrained because the building is listed.

He added: "We not only looked at changing it with our own resources and have brought in experts from the restaurant industry from abroad and looked at how they might be run as a joint venture but nobody has been able to come up with a formula to do it."

The café will close at the end of November and result in 234 job losses. The company said it was hoping that some staff may be able to move to other parts of the group.

Campbell Bewley is one of the largest catering firms in Ireland and has also expanded to the US and Britain. It also owns a number of hotels and supplies most of the country's hotels and restaurants with tea and coffee.

Mr Corbett said no decision has been made on what to do with the two premises, though they will be some kind of retailer.

"We are devastated by the closures of the cafés. If this was simply a profit decision it would have been taken years ago, but we have spent several years trying to keep them open."

Mr Campbell said the whole coffee business has changed in Dublin.

"The streets of Dublin are becoming homogenous We're becoming a sterile (business) environment. It's a moment we were hoping wouldn't happen. The tide was eventually running against us. The rents in Grafton Street are the fifth highest in the world. We're not getting support from anywhere."

Although the Luas has increased pedestrian volume on Grafton Street by 20%, Mr Campbell said the layout of his cafés meant he couldn't capitalise on the extra business.

Bewley's quotes

Senator David Norris:

James Joyce was very fond of a trip to Bewley's when he was flush with other people's money.

It's very sad. Bewley's were very much part of the Dublin of my youth.

The beautiful aroma of ground coffee in the mornings in Grafton Street was wonderful.

Anthony Cronin, writer:

I'd prefer it (Bewley's) didn't go, because I think it was a notable Dublin facility and we ought to have a coffee house of some kind. I wouldn't call what's going now coffee houses.

Gay Byrne, broadcaster:

I am terribly, terribly sorry to see it go because it was part of the Dublin and Grafton Street scene for so long.

Kathleen Watkins, broadcaster:

Everybody is heartbroken over Bewley's. When you were in town with your mother it was a huge treat to go into Bewley's for the coffee and cakes.

Peter Sheridan, writes:

It's a huge loss, not only in terms of the cup of coffee, but culturally as well. In the 1970s it was a great meeting place for people. You'd get a cheap cup of coffee in Bewley's and you could hang out for hours with the one cup of coffee in warm surroundings.

(Compiled by Jim Morahan).

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