I whiled away a very pleasant couple of hours last week at a relatively-newly opened café in one of Kildare’s smaller towns.
My plans, as they were, for the afternoon had fallen through, and I had nothing more pressing to do, for once, than to settle in with a good book, a frothy cappuccino and pass an hour of idle time.
For a place off the beaten track at an odd hour on a midweek afternoon, business hummed along at a steady place.
Elderlypeople were having a cuppa and a cake together; there were a couple of mums in for a treat and a bit of a chat with their primary school children once class let out, and there were a group of ladies gossiping and putting the world to rights.
The food was simple, tasty and good value, the coffee strong and the women behind the counter cheerful, chatty and busy — but not too nosy into your business. It was absolutely perfect.
While the rain dripped greyly down outside, the café was a warm and cosy little refuge and a respite from the chill gloom of the everyday world in winter.
I hate to hear any news of local businesses closing, of course — but it pains my heart particularly when that little enterprise is a coffee shop or mom-and-pop restaurant, the kind of place you can huddle up with a bun and a tea and take respite from the day.
I’m don’t mind the big chains like Costa and Starbucks — indeed, some of the same staff have been working in my local ones for years, and their offerings are familiar, quick and consistent... but they’re just not the same, are they?
They fulfil a function, but they’ll never be at the heart and soul of life.
It’s not an easy business to be in, the café game. It’s hard to make a few bob when rent and overheads and wages are taken into account.
When Amy Buckley in Naas closed the Duck and Cup café in the Moat Theatre foyer last year (this busy lady is going back to college while continuing to run the Book & Cup in Barker & Jones), she calculated that it had employed 15 full- and part-time staff over its four-year lifespan, paid almost €200,000 in wages, over €40,000 in rent and over €35,000 in overheads, not to mention tax returns, food, beverages, equipment. That’s a lot.
But what do these little places offer, apart from food and drink that, to be honest, you could probably knock up yourself for a third of the price? Why are they a good place to spend your hard-earned wages? Isn’t the mantra these days to bring your lunches from home and cut out the cappuccinos to be able to afford that holiday abroad? Haven’t millennials been told that their avocado-on-toast-from-a-café obsession is the reason they can’t afford housing deposits?
Utter piffle, if you ask me (there are structural inequalities in Ireland’s housing market that are never going to be solved by slicing your own avocado).
In exchange for shelling out a few euros more once or twice a week for a sandwich, paying customers are ensuring the survival of these little places, which not only contribute to the local economy, but are important in their own right. Our towns would be bleaker without them.
They are refuges for frazzled parents who need a quick break. They are places for young people to hang out and strangers to our community — who may feel uncomfortable in a pub setting — to meet up. They are kindness and sustenance and community, all in one spot... so if you have a favourite little coffee shop you haven’t been to in a while, maybe this week would be a good time to drop in for a coffee and to say hello.
And to all the busy, cheerful, hard-pressed proprietors out there, my heartiest thanks for brightening up a grey day.