St Albans indie coffee shops feeling the strain from big chains

Owners Anna Yianni, Mario and Elena Petrou outside Cafe Nes during the refurbishment

Owners Anna Yianni, Mario and Elena Petrou outside Cafe Nes during the refurbishment - Credit: Archant

Big brands, building works and business rents have seen independent coffee shops suffer in the past year, with many predicting it won’t get much better.

After years of bustling business, independents on St Peter’s Street have seen a decline in customers after coffee chains took prime spot on the high street.

Gotz Kaul, owner of Café Roma, said it is difficult to compete with them: “Big coffee chains have an advantage that they can run a number of shops at a loss. It’s not about coffee for them, it’s about numbers.

“We provide a much more personal service. Good coffee and a setting that keeps the community together, a meeting place where people can socialise. Our coffee is of very good quality, equal to, if not better, than the brands.

“Bigger stores work for profit and the shareholders, we work for our customers. We’ve been here for 18 years, but independent coffee shops now stand no chance.”

The top of St Peter’s Street has been particularly affected after building works and shop closures have discouraged trade at the top end of town.

Dolce Italia opened in early 2012, and was proving very successful until recently.

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Owner Antonio Di Palma said: “When we first opened St Albans was full of independents, it’s just not the same town anymore. The stuff we do is of great quality and it’s not that we’re overpriced.

“A lot of local independents have had enough and are shutting up shop. We pay our high business rates just like everybody else, but this area of town doesn’t get as much attention.”

Dolce Italia has found trading so difficult, they are considering selling up and have put the business on the market. Antonio added: “We just want to gauge interest; we’re still hoping to stay. I have a 15 year lease. This is me, and I wanted it to be me for the next 15 years, but there is no point killing ourselves.”

The tricky climate has prompted some independents to take a different business route entirely, leaving their coffee days behind them.

After 15 years in the coffee business, Café Nes’ recent struggles in the competitive market have driven them to become St Albans’ latest gourmet burger joint, with Relish opening on July 2.

Owner Mario Petrou believes they had no choice after their rent nearly doubled and big coffee shops came to the high street.

He said: “It has just snowballed. Our business started to go down because we lost a lot of our morning and afternoon coffee trade. That was what used to keep us going basically.

“With all the big boys coming in to town it has really affected us. So it was a choice of either selling and shutting shop, or trying something else.”

While many are finding the market difficult, some independents have found business is booming, with Bakehouse St Albans set to expand by opening a restaurant downstairs.

Assistant manager, Amalia Cosovan, said: “Our coffee is pretty exclusive, so I think most customers come here for the coffee. Having the big brands coming in didn’t really affect us.

“It’s the type of customers we have, mostly families and couples. They probably wouldn’t have gone to one of the brands before, it’s our location and space we have.”