In October 1969, a Hollywood film called ‘For Love Or Money’ starring Kirk Douglas and Mitzi Gaynor was being screened at the Adelphi Cinema and Theatre on Gleeson Street in Athlone. It was the sort of light-hearted and fluffy romantic comedy usually reserved for the highly successful on-screen partnership of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. That being said, the on-screen chemistry between Douglas and Gaynor; vivid and bright Technicolor cinematography; talented and good-looking supporting cast; great wardrobe choices and sumptuous locations – made the movie a joy to watch. It was essentially a very sophisticated take on 1960s chic and a perfect way to escape a cold October night in Westmeath.
In 1979, the year after Telefís Éireann’s second television channel RTÉ2 launched and the VHS cassette and player brought home entertainment to Irish shores, the prominent local landmark that had first opened its doors in 1946 – turned off its projector forever. The building then found itself being repurposed as a furniture warehouse for many years and then more recently as an antiques business.
Part of the old Adelphi Cinema building that once brought the glitz and glamour to the town is the new home for charming 29-year-old proprietor Petar Horg’s bold new café venture – ‘Coffee House No1.’ I went along to meet Petar at his new premises on what should have been a joyful first week of trading but was overshadowed because the country was in its second lockdown of 2020.
Petar lives in Athlone but is originally from a city in Northern Croatia called Varaždin which is renowned for its beautiful baroque architecture. Varaždin is served by the Drava River which itself feeds into the bigger Danube – famously linking the four countries of Austria, Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia.
“I originally came to Ireland in 2015 after I had qualified as an Architect and took a job working in the bar of the 5-star Westbury Hotel in Dublin. The Doyle Collection who owned the Westbury Hotel supported me to study mixology and management at Trinity College Dublin. I then left Ireland to go back to Croatia to run a restaurant in Dubrovnik which only opened between May and September.” He explained that managing a restaurant in Dubrovnik was unlike anything in Ireland. “The restaurant was seasonal and I frequently found myself working for 6 months at a time without taking a single day off, for almost 6 years!”
A New Coffee Shop Experience
While his restaurant in Croatia was closed off-season, Petar would regularly travel to Ireland, the UK, or to Germany to learn the language and immerse himself in the different cultures. He returned to Ireland in November 2018 directly from Croatia and took a job at the Wineport Lodge in Glasson, as part of a team that included his brother – who was a former chef at the Westbury Hotel, and his partner. He loved the town for its vibrancy and friendly atmosphere and soon started thinking about using his knowledge and experience in hospitality to set-up a business in the town. His vision was to open a cool, unfussy, laid-back coffee house with an all-weather terrace. In a nutshell he wanted to bring a piece of beautiful Varaždin living to the Westmeath town.
“I really fell in love with Athlone. It was the first town that I actually felt at home in. Everybody is friendly and it’s a place where everyone says hello to you on the street when they see you. And if you ask someone to a barbeque – they will come! It has a homely, friendly atmosphere around. I decided to invest time and money to show people that there is another type of coffee shop. Somewhere, where you are greeted with a smile and served on a terrace with at least an ashtray on the table so that you can relax.”
Location, Location, Location
Petar tells me that it was very difficult to find a suitable location for his new venture. He needed somewhere centrally that wouldn’t stop pedestrians walking on the pavement, but had a large enough outdoor area for terraced seating.
“A relaxed, Mediterranean inspired terrace is central to what I am trying to build. Somewhere that I can have an elegant covered terrace that would provide all-year-round protection from the sun to rain. I don’t believe that the Irish rain should stop you from enjoying your caffè macchiato. Back home in Croatia, the temperature will be very cold and reach -20 degrees in a couple of months. During a big hot summer, it can reach 40 degrees, we always adapt as needed.”
Petar had agreed to take over his new premises about 6 months ago, just before the last lockdown in March. He talked about how difficult the whole process has been for him. “It was very difficult to a single carpenter to fit out the café because they all were very busy from the minute the country got back to normal. I had to do a lot of the work myself – from the counter bar; to putting up shelving and carrying out work to the stairs. But the most important thing I needed was for someone to put up a massive canopy outside, that would be folded and could be opened when it rained.”
It has taken Petar about €25k to get him to the point that he could officially serve coffee and his biggest purchase was a professional coffee maker. He says that he would rather not mention its expensive price tag! He also enthused about having found a perfect blend of coffee from a Dublin based supplier. His coffee is very good as I watch lots of people joining a socially distanced queue who are on a friendly first-name basis with him. Petar takes time to ask every single person how their day is going, while he methodically serves up the chosen beverage and offers a fresh pastry. There is relaxing café music playing from an elegant retro speaker that could almost make you feel that you are sitting in the sunshine on a cobblestoned terrace gazing into one of the finest vistas. The politeness turns to smiles as the customers leave and promise to return and tell all their friends. “There is no better promotion than a happy customer,” Petar tells me during the few moments before the next customer arrives.
Despite another lockdown in Ireland, it is somehow reassuring that there are entrepreneurs like Petar who are unafraid of working flat out to make a new venture a success. Inevitably, someone determined, focussed and passionate as Petar Horg is will create local employment which is something both the town and county needs. Endless cups of coffee were poured in countless classic-era films and just as the Adelphi cinema provided an opportunity for local people to escape their ordinary lives, Coffee House No1 is poised to whisk you away to the continent with a wonderful aroma of freshly ground coffee.
This article was published across the Topic group 12/11/2020.