From the moment the new Busy Bee café in Mriehel opened its doors last November, it was a runaway success. Customers weren’t just blown away by the confectioneries – the design of the café, the style of which is completely different to the beloved original Msida café, is integral to the experience, and brings something to Mriehel which wasn’t there before.
Stephanie Cassar, the architect behind the design of the elegant space, says that from the outset, the café was a fundamental part of the Busy Bee factory premises. “The company wanted to complement the production side of its business, which has now relocated entirely from Msida to Mriehel, with premises which would serve as a link with clients and customers, while also tapping into the lack of similar catering establishments in the area.”
The café needed to tick many boxes – it had to be suitable for drop-ins looking to sit at a table as well as for customers picking up catering orders, and it also needed to represent Busy Bee, which has been in business for over 80 years. “Busy Bee has developed over many years, and this project needed to represent where Busy Bee is now and how it’s grown. The design of the café includes references to the brand’s roots, but also gives it a completely new lease of life.”
The new café boasts a contemporary design with classical references, inspired by the grand European cafés seen in Paris, Milan and London. “The fact that the building has a high ceiling, there’s a good volume of space and it’s well-lit with natural light, aided this vision, but we also had to balance that out from a design perspective with the fact that it’s located in Mriehel, on the outskirts of an industrial estate, not in a grand city such as Valletta,” says Stephanie. “Additionally, besides being aesthetically pleasing, the space had to be functional and practical, particularly the bar area. There was a lot of professional input from the client’s end for the layout of the bar, but the end result was very faithful to the initial aesthetic of the visuals we had prepared for this project.”
In keeping with the café’s location, Stephanie says attention was paid to coming up with a design concept which upgraded the brand’s image, but which wasn’t too refined. “We opted for exposed surfaces on the ceiling, for instance, which gave the space an unrefined look and feel, but it worked really well with the luxurious materials chosen, such as the marble floor and columns, and actually made them stand out even more,” she asserts.
“The same can be said for the tables at the café, all of which are authentic, artisanal bistro tables sourced from France, made by a manufacturer that supplies Parisian brasseries and bistros. They’re the kind of tables you’d see French boulevards and streets lined with, and again strike the right balance between appearing refined yet subtle.”
The colour scheme was inspired by the company’s own branding, with a few added twists. Brass details were a key element to achieving the look and feel of a grand European café, while grey, a prominent colour used throughout, was a key choice for bringing everything together. “The aim was to ground everything with a darker, more subtle colour, so although we opted for brass details, white Calcutta marble on the columns and orange for the upholstery, everything is balanced out by grey,” she explains.
“Interestingly, our initial idea for the floor was to have a wood herringbone floor, but this is where communication with the client comes in. We then opted for dark marble with a brushed rather than polished finish, which is more practical for daily use and easier to maintain, but also has a more elevated feel to it.”
Other colours used, for instance for the upholstered bench adjacent to the restroom, were chosen to complement the neutral palette, as well as the marble, brass and orange upholstery on the stools. “Other features which can’t go unmentioned are the light fittings, which were sourced specifically for this project – particularly the chandeliers, which are probably my favourite detail in the space.”
The eye-catching chandeliers, which feature a metal tubular structure for the frame fitted with glass blocks, were designed by Spanish industrial design pioneer Miguel Milá, who originally conceived the idea for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic stadium. “The chandeliers, although quite grand, also have an industrial and unrefined edge to them, which fit in perfectly with the space,” says Stephanie.
“We also installed a number of bespoke mirrors with a smoky effect throughout the café, which create reflections, making it more dynamic, as someone sitting in the corner of the café can observe what’s going on at the bar, while simultaneously adding to the feeling of a large space. The hexagonal wall mirrors also somewhat mimic the Busy Bee logo – the honeycomb shape – without being too literal.”
Cleverly woven into the design of the café is the display area, located at the furthest wall opposite the main entrance, which features Busy Bee’s own products interlaced with beautiful objets d’art in a laid-back set-up. “We didn’t want the display to appear commercial, the kind you’d find in a supermarket, but rather, it had to appear homely, where beautiful pieces sit alongside the brand’s very own items. We added frames with old photographs relating to Busy Bee’s history to the display, a sort of trip down memory lane, thereby also creating a link to the past, which is where it all started. The café is not a new start, it’s a continuation.”
In keeping with the client’s wishes to make the bar area stand out, Stephanie decided to extend the soffit over the bar only, leaving the rest of the ceiling with exposed services, in order to frame the bar, and give it the importance it deserves. Moreover, the marble-clad pillars along the bar feature cornices, whereas those in the seating area don’t, adding further detail to this section of the space. “A lot of attention to detail was given to the bar area, including, for instance, the wallpaper along the counter behind the bar. Wallpaper in that area is prone to splashes, but in order to accommodate the design concept of having wallpaper there, we covered it with glass to prevent it from soiling – making it aesthetically pleasing but also practical.”
Despite the challenges, Stephanie asserts that the project brought with it many rewards, the greatest one being that she had the client’s trust from the get-go, which led to a smooth and faithful interpretation of the original visuals she had created for the café.
“Additionally, seeing the café come to life from those original visuals, filled with people from all over the island, is incredible. There was no doubt that it would be a success, with such a well-established company behind it, but perhaps none of us had foreseen just how successful it would be.”
This feature originally appeared in The Commercial Courier