I revisited one of my favourite West End cafes this week.
With a cozy atmosphere, friendly staff and homemade food which revived me through the murkiest days of my degree, the cafe is a firm favourite.
But this time round, something is different about the cafe – it’s empty.
For a busy weekday at noon, it’s unusual to see so many empty seats, eerily quiet without the steady hum of machines brewing coffee beneath the chatter. Something has changed.
For the owner of the cafe*, there’s a sense of resignation.
With the arrival of chains such as Pret a Manger on Byres Road, maintaining her small business has become an increasingly difficult venture to maintain.
I’m curious if this has anything to do with the atmosphere (or lack thereof). Has her business really suffered from this new opening?
“Without a doubt. Customers seem to have gone to what they know. They’ll pay a quid less for a coffee, but that doesn’t mean anything to the bigger businesses! I’m furious that it’s been allowed to happen in this area.”
Her outrage appears fair. For a large chain to launch in an area heaving with smaller businesses, there’s bound to be difficulties in competing for customer attention.
But the arrival of these chains isn’t the only contributing factor in the uncertainty of the cafe’s future.
Business rates have steepened, and this too has had a direct impact on the operation of the cafe.
“We have to pay an extra £6000 a year” the cafe owner admits quietly. “We’re only a small business and we’ve had to deal with paying that amount extra. How is that fair?”
A good question, particularly as she believes her new neighbours are considerably less likely to struggle.
She says that if an establishment is part of a chain, they won’t be required to pay as much in rates.
At this point, it’s becoming increasingly obvious who the circumstances are really favouring.
It gets worse. West End residents and shoppers will also be aware of the steep parking charges being placed throughout the local area, rendering the streets more expensive to park on.
Again, this has made life difficult for this cafe business.
“I can’t even get a parking permit, because the business is on the wrong side of the road!” she sighs.
Instead, she must pay the rocketing rates to park nearby to work, adding to the unnecessary expenditure of simply running the business.
Our chat ends on a gloomy note, highlighting the odds being stacked against this small business and many others like it.
“Opening the cafe was a gamble that paid off. But when I did it, the area was different. I know plenty of people around here are feeling the same as we are!”
Could this really be the future of the West End?
As noted in my previous column, it’s becoming plausible. Far from a haven for local businesses, my exchange with the cafe owner only serves as evidence for recent developments only harming them.
Indeed, the situation is sombre. Minor changes could revive some tired looking West End streets, but when local businesses are forced out of a district where they once thrived, the grave outlook seems justified.
Here is a prime example of a small, local business feeling the pinch in a climate which just doesn’t welcome them like they used to; a gem lost to gentrification.
It should seem unthinkable, but after this conversation, one is forced to ask the question: just whose side are the authorities on?
* The manager of the cafe preferred for both the cafe and her identity to be kept anonymous.