Grafton Street's no longer a wonderland as cafe society falls foul of Nama rents
Founded by a Quaker, Ernest Bewley, in 1927, the eponymous coffee house had a tradition that if a customer could not afford to pay, they were not obliged to. When I and a school friend occasionally mitched, it was to Bewley's we repaired and often pondered whether to test if this was true.
That Society of Friends' largesse is perhaps not the ideal way to boost profit margins or expand. But the Bewley brand is very successful in Ireland and the UK.
My parents, being country folk, commemorated many a birthday or simply a trip to town with a visit to Bewley's. Nothing else would do, the cake-stand with lemon iced buns, chocolate eclairs, cupcakes and scones was the epitome of hedonism when I was eight. When I got my first car, a Beetle, I used to park right outside - hard to imagine now, but Grafton Street once had traffic. When I was a young mother, I'd go there for a bit of sanity with the baby in the buggy. It was sufficiently spacious that we weren't in the way. The big clattery sounds were soothing. The bentwood chairs, open fires, velvet banquettes, Chinese wallpaper and high ceilings reconnected me with my own childhood.
When Ernest Bewley refurbished the building, he drew on inspiration from the great European cafes of Paris and Vienna. His forebears had landed here in the 18th century and were to break the monopoly of the East India Company by importing their own chests of tea from China, hence the oriental tearooms. The Egyptian-influenced facade was inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun's Tomb in 1922. Long before, the building had housed Whyte's Academy, a school whose pupils included The Duke of Wellington and Robert Emmet.
Bewley's has long been associated with the literary, cultural, artistic, architectural and social life of Dublin. It was a haunt for some of Ireland's most famous figures, including James Joyce (who mentioned the cafe in 'Dubliners'), Patrick Kavanagh, Samuel Beckett and Sean O'Casey, to name but a few. Indeed, its owner has moulded a career as a sculptor in his latter years. Patrick Campbell had created Campbell Catering with his wife Veronica and saved Bewley's by the time he was 50. Then he left it all to fulfil his life's ambition as an artist and train in Florence. Campbell, now 72, shows regularly in Ireland, Britain, Italy and America, and was asked to sculpt a bust of Mary McAleese during her presidency. With close ties to the National College of Art and Design, Veronica has hosted many exhibitions on the cafe walls. They sold Campbell Catering to American giant Aramark, but still retain Bewley's.
So why is this illustrious grand dame of Grafton Street closing for at least six months, with the loss of 140 jobs?
With a rent of almost €1.5m, it would be hard to sell enough coffee and cake to meet the landlord's expectations, especially as people have been cutting back on life's little luxuries, and perhaps eight-year-old are not as impressed with a birthday tea as I was.
The rent was set in 2007 when the new landlords had sights on ousting the coffee business in favour of a London high-street chain. And not before trying to remove the Harry Clarke stained glass windows, made specifically for the cafe in 1931. That was the subject of a court battle, happily, the building won. Bewley's made court headlines again last year, seeking to have the rent reviewed downward. The Supreme Court overturned Justice Charleton's High Court decision, stating that the five-judge decision was based on the construction of the wording in the lease. The court could not undo the terms of an agreement. Such an outcome meant that Bewley's must continue to pay the €1.46m rent up to 2017 when the next review arises. There are seven years to run on its lease with Ickendel Ltd, part of Johnny Ronan's Treasury Holdings Group.
In its defence, Bewley's had sought, what every business in Ireland recognises, "an acknowledgement of the economic reality and fair treatment with a rent that reflects market values". In a statement after the ruling, it said that "this has been blocked by Nama and the landlord".
This is not the first time Bewley's has met with financial difficulties. In November 2004, it closed with the loss of 234 jobs. After a six-month campaign and 25,000 signatures to have the cafes reopened, a rescue was found in bar and restaurant entrepreneurs Jay Bourke and Eoin Foyle, who spent €2m on a refurbishment and a new restaurant on the first floor. Their management, sentiment and investment did not repay. Even with lunchtime theatre, late night opening and expansion of dining capacity, the downturn took its toll.
The plan now is to scale back to coffee and buns for 160 as opposed to 400, operating on the ground floor only, thus leasing a portion of the building that will yield half the rent to the landlord. There is still doubt about whether that will work. It remains to be seen who will take over the remaining space and if the building maintains its special character.
The rent could still be reduced under a mutual agreement. In Bewley's High Court action, the court heard various reports indicated that commercial retail rents had fallen by over 50pc while a 2013 judgment in the Circuit Court fixed a new rent on a Grafton Street property at just 53pc of the previous rent.
The landlord's loan is one of many acquired by Nama. Our National Asset Management Agency has liberally sold discounted loans on thousands of properties, there is no reason why, in conjunction with Dublin Tourism and Dublin City Council, it should not safeguard this national asset by ensuring its survival as Bewley's Oriental Cafe.
Bewley's is a star attraction on Grafton Street - the unique, historic building sits in a wilderness of UK high-street names and phone shops. Losing this jewel is inconceivable to Dubliners and rural visitors alike. With the plethora of jewellery shops in its vicinity, some spirited entrepreneur might consider a creative amalgamation, after all Breakfast at Tiffany's is a marriage of diamonds, coffee and croissants. Deirdre Conroy is an architectural historian