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Restaurant closures: Why are so many Irish outlets shutting up shop?

In the early days of January, restaurants have been shutting at the rate of one a day

When Dublin food hall, wine bar and restaurant group Fallon & Byrne announced the closure of its Rathmines branch on January 2nd, the reason given was simply that it was loss-making. “We believe that acting decisively is what’s best for the business overall,” the company statement said.

Amputating the non-performing limb in such a clinical manner may indeed safeguard the future of this company, but all around Ireland restaurateurs and owners of food businesses are doing the opposite, desperately stitching together the strands of their struggling enterprises in the hope of staying afloat. But for some, the lifejackets are coming apart at the seams.

On Thursday, the picture worsened when the owner of Michelin-starred Mews restaurant in Baltimore, Co Cork announced that it would not be re-opening after its annual winter break. It is not the only Cork restaurant to shut its doors in recent days. Richy’s and Deasy’s, both in Clonakilty, and Arundels By The Pier have also announced closures.

It wasn't that the business was unsustainable beforehand. It was, [but] how can we afford an extra €40,000 in rent?

Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI), could not ignore the elephant in the room when launching the Irish Restaurant Awards on Wednesday. "It's a tough time of year and it's tough in business. We have seen some casualties in the first few days of January. I know of eight restaurants that have closed," he said. That's eight closures in the first eight days of the year, or one a day.


"The cost of doing business has become simply unsustainable," according to RAI president Mark McGowan, who is managing director of Scholars Townhouse Hotel in Drogheda. Increases in rent, rates and VAT, together with increasing labour costs and difficulties in obtaining insurance cover, are often cited as the reasons why restaurants in Ireland are failing.

But it’s not as simple as that. Behind each closure there is a different story and a particular set of circumstances that have forced people to make what may be the toughest decision they’ve ever had to face.

The iron-shaped scorch mark on the tablecloth at Amuse, an upmarket Franco-Asian diningroom on Dawson Street in Dublin 2, perfectly reflects the experiences of chef Conor Dempsey and his wife and business partner Joanna, who have seen their life savings disappear in a puff of smoke. This week they closed the doors on the restaurant they self-financed and opened in May 2014.

“It all came to a head in mid-December,” says Conor. The building in which Amuse is located was sold last summer, and the business faced a rent increase of 50 per cent, going up from €80,000 to €120,000. “It wasn’t that the business was unsustainable beforehand. It was, [but] how can we afford an extra €40,000 in rent? And the VAT had gone up by 40 per cent in January 2019, and the rates were due to go up 10 per cent this month.”

With just 30 seats, and a three-course menu priced at €69, margins must always have been tight at this critically-acclaimed, but somehow always slightly under the radar restaurant that struggled to fill its reservations book. “Everyone thinks that restaurants make a lot of money but that’s not the case,” Conor says.

Faced with a 50 per cent rent increase, the couple considered going to arbitration in a bid to save their business and the livelihood of the seven people it employed. “Arbitration can take six months to a year, with no guarantee that you’ll win. I spoke to other restaurateurs about it and they said it’s a bit of a joke. How can you run a business during that time, not knowing what the outcome will be?”

Unpaid role

Joanna, who is a director of the company, had an unpaid role in helping to run the restaurant’s accounts, and it is she who answers the door to the string of callers during our meeting in the forlorn and chilly dining room. “We are trying to do this quietly, and all we want is to pay all of our creditors, which we are able to do,” she says. “Of course, we would have liked to have got some of our investment money back, but we have to bury that thought now.”

Beo Wine Bar + Kitchen brought something new and very much on-trend to Stoneybatter in Dublin 7 when it opened at the start of last year, serving organic, vegan tasting menus. But despite being representative of the fastest-growing eating demographic, the business failed to make it to its first anniversary, the shutters coming down last month.

The restaurant was opened by Ethna McDermott, an Irish architect who retrained as a raw food vegan chef in Los Angeles. Catherine Cleary, reviewing Beo for The Irish Times in May 2019, described it as "a glamorous vegan option that's very nearly brilliant". But shades of brilliance haven't proved to be enough to survive the choppy waters of the Irish restaurant scene.

McDermott, who is devastated by the loss of her business, attributes some blame to another recurring concern for Irish restaurants – people making reservations and then not turning up. “No-shows and late cancellations were a huge issue for us at Beo, as we were a niche destination restaurant, and this contributed to our closure,” she says.

Beo offered a three-course early bird menu for €17, and elaborate tasting menus ranging from €25 for three courses to €45 for six courses, plus snacks. But despite the value on offer, diners did not turn up in sufficient numbers. “More local support would have been good, although we did have some lovely local regulars who were always supportive, loved what we were doing and kept coming back for every new monthly menu.”

It is a little bit of everything. I am close to 55 and my business partner is 57; it was time for us to do something different

Vegan restaurants are becoming more numerous in Dublin as the lifestyle choice gains momentum, but Beo may have been ahead of the curve. “We probably were ahead of our time in terms of a vegan tasting menu in Dublin,” McDermott says. “But I think there is a need for more interesting and experimental plant-based restaurants. We need more classically-trained chefs using their skills to advance this part of food culture.”

Arnaud Mary and Patrice Garreau took to social media to announce the closure, on January 4th, of their popular Waterford city restaurant, L'Atmosphere.

Messages of support and condolences flooded in from former customers, regretting the loss of the Henrietta Street bistro which offered a two-course early bird for €18 with classics such as chicken parfait, confit duck, beef Bourguignon and crème brûlée on the menu. L’Atmosphere also featured in a list of the most child-friendly restaurants in Ireland, published in this newspaper.

It wasn't spiralling rent, rates, or the VAT increase that prompted this closure, according to joint-owner Arnaud Mary, who came to Ireland from France in 1997 to work as personal chef for the industrialist Ambrose Congreve at his Mount Congreve estate in Kilmeaden, Co Waterford.

“It wasn’t the rent because I own the building. Yes, the VAT increase last year hit us a little bit and affected the business, of course. But it is a little bit of everything. I am close to 55 and my business partner is 57; it was time for us to do something different.” With his restaurant closed, Arnaud plans to continue his private catering business, do some freelance cheffing and food consultancy.

In Dublin, McDermott isn’t saying what her next move will be. But despite the difficulties she has encountered in the restaurant trade, she is taking something positive from the experience: “More than 50 per cent of our customers were not vegan or vegetarian, they were people looking for a different dining experience and to be surprised. I’m so proud that we achieved that.”

Dempsey says he is putting his CV together and looking for a chef job. And what advice would be have for anyone thinking of opening a restaurant in Ireland at the moment? “Don’t do it,” he says with a laugh.