As small businesses scramble to respond to the impact of the Coronavirus, the shutters have come down on one of West Belfast's most famed eateries, the Coffee House Bistro on the Stewartstown Road.
Husband and wife team Jim and Mary McIlwaine told the Andersonstown News that the decision to close the popular eatery was made for the health and safety of their staff, customers and family.
However, Jim McIlwaine vows to return when the crisis has passed.
“We’ve been on the road this past 17 years," he said. "It’s a family-based restaurant which means it is more than just a business. This place is our pride and joy and we're proud of the fact that we know 90 per cent of the customers here on a first-name basis.”
Jim said he saw no alternative to closure. “The fact is people are dying and this virus needs closed down. At this stage (last Thursday) there is no leadership telling us what to do, we all had to make up own minds to close. We are a 42-seater restaurant and we thought that that was still too many people in a confined space. We moved the seats out to create more spacing, to try and spread people away from each other. We cleaned, we were on the ball, staff were washing their hands consistently but we weren’t happy that we were still open and nobody was telling us to close. We started to fear that we were being self-centred and thoughtless and decided we needed to take the decision to close."
He continued: “To close the business was the best decision, the safest decision and we hope will help in some way in the long run.” Jim said that all his staff “will be back with us, when it is safe to do so”. “We are waiting for a cure, for us to beat this. We want it to be safe for people to mingle again in the same environment”.
And the McIlwaines have warm words for their loyal customers and their hardworking employees. "I reassured my staff that they will be back. If they get jobs elsewhere then that is my loss.
“We are all fighting this pandemic. We have to beat it together. It breaks our hearts to shut. But we will be open again, probably busier, stronger. The messages of support have been overwhelming. It’s an emotional time.”