Mermaid Cafe owner criticises rent practices


THE OWNERS of the defunct Mermaid Cafe and Gruel restaurants in Dublin have hit out at the “short-sighted” behaviour of landlords, which they say will force many city traders out of business and ruin the character of the capital.

Mark Harrell and Ben Gorman, who first opened the Mermaid Cafe on Dame Street in 1996, said the principal reason for the closure of the two restaurants was “the intransigence of landlords who still demand boom-time rents with their upward-only review mechanisms still in place”.

The award-winning Mermaid and its more casual sister restaurant Gruel ceased trading on December 23rd, having managed to secure only a “tiny” reduction in rent from its landlady. The company behind them is now in liquidation, with the loss of 30 jobs. Mr Harrell said “part of the fabric of Temple Bar” was now gone.

“I fear for Dublin if this is the way the culture is going to go. It will just become temporary traders and boarded-up shops,” Mr Harrell said.

It will be “a very busy year” for restaurant closures in the city, he predicted, with levels of custom during January and February – traditionally quiet for the industry – likely to force several traders out.

“It will be the small, interesting restaurants that go. It’s not going to be the Starbucks and the McDonald’s. But then what’s left? Where’s the interest? Where’s the joy?”

The combined rent on the two restaurants at 68 and 69 Dame Street was €190,000. When Mr Harrell and Mr Gorman opened the Mermaid, at number 69, in 1996, the rent was £15,000.

At their peak, the restaurants employed 45 people. The owners cut back to a core group of 30 after the slowdown in consumer spending led to an initial drop of business of 25 per cent. At one point, trade was down 40 per cent.

The restaurants were also affected by a lack of custom during the snowy weather at the start of 2010 and the lack of visitors to Dublin in April 2010 when flights were suspended due to volcanic dust. Extreme weather conditions before Christmas saw a further dramatic fall-off in trade.

Although this was the “final nail”, the main reason for the closures was the failure of the rent negotiations, Mr Harrell said.

The lease on the premises featured now-banned upward-only rent review clauses. The Government has passed legislation prohibiting these clauses in new leases but this has not helped the thousands bound by the old contracts.

Mr Harrell is now living in Britain, while Mr Gorman is moving to Spain. Although the restaurant game was “a struggle at the best of times”, Mr Harrell said if he was “20 years younger” he would consider getting involved again. “But I certainly wouldn’t do it in Dublin.”