'You can't sell a fry for €15': Cafes closing in face of energy hikes

'You can't sell a fry for €15': Cafes closing in face of energy hikes

Elsa Cabrini closing the doors of The Tasty Corner café & deli in Cobh, Co Cork for the final time. Pictures: Dan Linehan

The Tasty Corner cafe in the picturesque town of Cobh in Co Cork has weathered the pressures of Covid and flooding since it opened three years ago.

However, its owner Elsa Cabrini was left with no choice but to reluctantly close her doors for the final time at 4pm on Sunday because of soaring energy bills.

An upbeat and optimistic person, the 40-year-old has been inundated with well wishes, flowers, and cards from locals who loved the cosy cafe on the top of the hill which served breakfast and brunch.

From teens popping in after GAA training, to families and pensioners having a chat over a cuppa, Elsa said that the cafe on Bishop Street attracted a diverse clientele.

Attracting customers was never the issue. Instead, the final nail in the coffin for the business was the Italian-born owner's realisation that no matter what she did, she wouldn’t be able to afford to pay the electricity bills this winter.

Covid crisis and energy costs

“We opened initially in June 2020. We had Covid and then a flooding (earlier this year ) which was sorted out quickly. The issue right now is energy costs. It is not workable at all.

 Elsa Cabrini getting a hug from her staff, Pier Paolo Usi, Fabio Ghizzoni, Amelia Burke and Jodie Healy after she closed the doors of The Tasty Corner.
Elsa Cabrini getting a hug from her staff, Pier Paolo Usi, Fabio Ghizzoni, Amelia Burke and Jodie Healy after she closed the doors of The Tasty Corner.

"This summer was the best one we have had. We saw the difference from when we opened up through Covid. There was no liners coming in then or tourists. Finally, it was the first season where we had the tourists back. Good times.

"With the energy bill, you are talking about at least three times more in the cost. I was doing the maths and they are talking about a 150% to 200% increase and I just can’t stay open with that.” 

Ms Cabrini said that if her business had been up and running for years she might have had savings to cushion the crushing blow of huge hikes in energy bills.

“If I was in a different financial position I would have tried. You make sacrifices and you try again. And you would wait to see if there would be an end to it. But it was too risky.“

 The cafe owner said business in the winter season solely involves locals with very little in the way of tourist trade.

“What would you do? Sell a fry for €15? You can’t do that. People as well are restricting their income and having to restrict the way they are living.

"We had a melting pot of customers. We had elderly people and families. We have young people and they are struggling as well. You do understand. You talk to them and they tell you such things.” 

Job-hunting

Elsa plans to return to her home town of Cremona in northern Italy for a week to see her family but she insists Cobh, where she has lived for six years, is now her home.

Having weathered the challenges of Covid and flooding since it opened three years ago, the Tasty Corner in Cobh Co Cork is being forced to shut due to the energy crisis. 
Having weathered the challenges of Covid and flooding since it opened three years ago, the Tasty Corner in Cobh Co Cork is being forced to shut due to the energy crisis. 

She is looking for a new job and is also hopeful of finding work for her four hard-working staff members.

“I will miss everybody. There is a bond [with customers and staff]. I am receiving cards and flowers every day. It is making me really emotional.

"I know I did something good here. The way people (are reacting) is making everything worth it. I know it is not my fault but there is always a little voice in your head saying that maybe I could have done something different.

"I have received private messages from other businesses looking for staff so I am making my girls aware of the other jobs.” 

'It is killing business'

Sandra Foote, the owner of the long-established Cappuccino's cafe on the Main Street in Wexford town is another business owner reeling at the price of energy bills.

Ms Foote, who opened her popular cafe in 1991, said she contacted an electrician to ask him to look over their bill for energy usage over 58 days in June and July which came to €9,116.74.

“Energy costs, raw materials. Everything has become unviable. It is killing business. We are responsible not only for ourselves but our employees as well.

"I am not just thinking about myself. It is such a struggle trying to run a small business. We have 22 staff members between part time and full time.

We were very worried when Covid happened. And then we did survive. We got a few good months and then we knocked back by this. This is worse than Covid

 She feels that the energy crisis has “come out of the blue".  

She will never forget the shock of her most recent bill with worse bills to follow.

“It would have been more than double of what we were paying earlier in the year. You would not have that budgeted in to your overall expenditure. You couldn’t budget for those kind of outrageous bills.” 

The owner of the family-run business said that they are also dealing with huge increases in prices for all their ingredients.

“We are getting emails from suppliers with increases in the cost of products that are coming in. Hot chocolate went up forty percent overnight. We are a cafe. That is what we sell. Coffees and hot chocolate. You are constantly incurring increases in your raw material costs and then throwing a massive energy bill into the equation. It is scary. It is tough times ahead.” 

'A big worry for the winter months'

Sandra says that you can’t double the price of a coffee or you would be out of business overnight. She is still looking at the small print of the Budget in terms of the Government measure offering 40% towards energy for businesses.

“I need to look in to the finer details to see who qualifies for the 40% that the Government are going to pay towards the ESB.

"We are a small independent business. Covid was bad. It knocked us back. You are trying to pick yourselves up through it. To get this is a big worry for the winter months.” 

Sandra adds that the Restaurants Association of Ireland recently pointed out that the energy consumption in catering is huge because of the equipment that is used.

“It is not that we are being flamboyant with our lights. Everyone is watching costs. But there is only something you can do with equipment.

"When you are running a business you can’t not have the lights on behind the counter. You are either open or not. There is high energy consumption in our business.

We can’t decide to switch off a freezer or fridge. We are going to have to run with it. This is the first time in all my years of business that I have been so concerned. It is hard times for people

"When I got the summer bill I was so shocked. I thought that it couldn’t be right. But then it had to be paid and no sooner had I it paid and another one came in. We will keep going but it will be hard."

Meanwhile, the Restaurants Association of Ireland has said that Budget 2023 has fallen short and does not go far enough to protect small hospitality employers as input costs rise significantly.

Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland.

CEO Adrian Cummins says that whilst the announcement of the Temporary Business Energy Support Scheme to support SME’s is welcome, covering 40% of the increase in electricity or gas bills up to a maximum of €10,000 per month per business, does not go far enough.

“The devil will be in the detail on this and we are calling for revenue to open and administer the scheme immediately – some businesses are already struggling to pay the bills coming in through their doors.

"Input costs continue to rise, including food costs and energy consumption will only increase during winter months. The 9% VAT rate ending in February of next year will only increase costs for consumers and raises concern about Ireland’s competitiveness compared to our EU counterparts.

Although the supports offered are welcomed, there are still some long hard months ahead. This can only be the first step in a package of measures over the coming winter months.”

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