Many children across the globe have had the experience of playing with a dollhouse in their childhood. Many dollhouses are made of antique furniture, tiny photo-frames and lots of details that make the house feel ‘warm’. However, in 2017, Caroline Grech turned her dollhouse into Carolina’s Petit Café and Tearoom in Balzan, and since then she has grasped some of Malta’s most popular locations, one pink café at a time.
Accompanied by her dog Ted, WhosWho.mt met up with Caroline Grech, the brains behind the name, the management, the events, the aesthetic and everything that takes place for the small café “chain” to operate.
Ms Grech with the charming 'Ted of Carolina's'
Ms Grech was brought up in the business industry, with her father being one of the founders of Pavi and Smart supermarket. Her experience in business accelerated when she took on the role as Director of Pavi. Although she has fond memories of her role and has gained knowledge on how to run a business, she came to the realisation that her passion lies in meeting and talking to people. Inspiration struck when she visited a small village in France. “I entered a café and I fell in love. I said to myself that in Malta, although we have a lot of coffee shops, not many create that feeling. Then I decided that I wanted people to feel what I've felt upon entering that cafeteria and that’s when Carolina’s was born.”
Her first location of Carolina’s Café was in Iklin, mere meters away from many other local and prominent businesses, giving her the opportunity to attract shoppers looking to buy a quick snack or coffee.
“That was the very first café I opened. However, that particular shop does not have the same feel and purpose as the other shops. It was rather centred towards ordering for takeaways and for people to buy a quick drink or two,” Ms Grech explains.
The next café opening was in 2017, in the heart of Balzan, close to the charming Balzan church. She says that since she was brought up in the village, she saw it as an opportunity to open her cafeteria there. Now, it's her all-time favourite café.
Speaking directly at the Balzan café, Ms Grech tells WhosWho.mt that the shop was originally a house and she managed to keep the layout of the café relatively similar. “The area where we have the coffee station with the cake display and other products, used to be a kitchen, while our seating area was the living room, so I tried to keep it as authentic as possible,” Ms Grech says.
On the walls of Carolina’s… French, pink and repurposed
Carolina’s is notorious for its lavish French-chique décor, but there is one secret that most people don’t know. Most of the decorations and furniture are repurposed with love, which involves a lot of DIY. “In Malta, it’s difficult to find decorations or furniture that fit with our theme. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to create what I have in mind. However, my father helps a lot in creating what I envision. Other times I source items from auctions or houses and I also go abroad,” Ms Grech adds.
She further explains that most chairs are re-upholstered and re-painted, some frames have added fabric instead of a picture and are then spray-painted in gold, with added teacups. Some chandeliers also have added vintage plates on them. She even professionally sprays her fridges to fit the theme.
Ms Grech states that for her, the experience provided to customers is a priority above everything else. Making her clients feel at home away from home, or at least feel like they have been transported into another world, is what gives her satisfaction as a business owner.
“Profit is important when having a business, but creating that feeling is something that I work hard on. The upkeep of cafés is also difficult for places with such detail but what’s important is that customers feel cosy, and, in some cases, they relive their own childhood memories because of the vintage decor and furniture,” Ms Grech states.
As much as this business strives on creating a magical experience, life has other plans. Although delivering a genuine-experience is its biggest contributor to success, it was also one of its downfalls during the pandemic. “You cannot deliver the experience from a takeaway box, even if the food is excellent,” Ms Grech remarked. However, Ms Grech said that she did manage to gain something from this turbulent period.
During COVID-19 she managed to secure two stores in the busy Bisazza Street, in Sliema, both in front of each other. “That was the right time to continue to expand, as the previous stores found it difficult to keep going during that time.” The second shop, neighbouring Giorgio’s is now a creperie and an ice-cream shop, and she partners with Ben and Jerry’s. However, as the seasons change throughout the year, so do the needs of the customers. She explained that while things quieten down in Balzan during summer, Sliema does well. However, things take a turn in the wintery months and so Ms Grech says that coming next autumn and winter, the creperie will have a range of gifts with a touch of Carolina’s instead.
The Barbie display at the Sliema café
Barbie, Mamma Mia, Peter Rabbit and Paddington Bear themed afternoon teas
"Something we introduced was the afternoon tea. We started offering afternoon tea all day for a very reasonable price, especially when compared to those offered abroad. I recently went to London and saw some priced more than £100 (€116). I wanted a reachable afternoon tea that everyone can enjoy with their families and friends,” Ms Grech states.
She also says that Carolina’s had themed afternoon teas including that of Mamma Mia the movie, Peter Rabbit, Paddington Bear and the most recent, Barbie. She added that when Queen Elizabeth II died, this time last year, she started offering a Queen Elizabeth-themed afternoon tea, that is still available to this day.
“Passion goes a long way. We have seasonal pastries all year long, especially during Christmas time and Mother’s Day.”
Ms Grech adds that most pastries and food items are prepared freshly every morning, hours before opening the cafes. “Overall, it costs the business more time and money to do so, but the result is much better. At the end of the day, that is what we are after.”
Ms Grech also remarks that Carolina’s has many requests for events, such as baby showers, and in the past years, events were very popular at Balzan. However, given the size of such events“it was becoming too crowded. Since then, she started redirecting these events to the Qawra location, which has more space.
Asked about future plans, Ms Grech answers that indeed she has plans to open in different locations. “However, not anytime soon. We opened four locations in five years, and I would like to focus on my current locations, the staff and the service.”
On the other hand, she explains that Carolina’s will now focus on being more present on social media. “When we initially opened, I wanted Carolina’s to be an internet-free zone. However, times change, and we are adapting to the power of technology and social media,” Ms Grech concludes.