A New Lease of Life for Hugo’s on Merrion Row
One of the most recogniseable restaurants in Dublin has to be Hugo’s on Merrion Row. Their unique blue facade has been a landmark of the area since it was first painted in 2007 and owner Gina Murphy assures me it will never change. “I’ll never change the colour on the front, you couldn’t! It’s phenomenal the amount of people who take photos outside. Literally if I had a Euro for every photo that was taken I’d be living in the Bahamas!”
While the colour will stay as it is, a lot of other things in Hugo’s have been changing recently. In September Gina took on sole ownership of the business and brought in new head chef Margaret Roche. At 27, Margaret might seem very young to be running the kitchen in one of Dublin’s most popular restaurants but she has a CV and a wealth of experience that would quickly dispel any reservations.
Having spent five years studying in DIT and working in The Merrion Hotel under Ed Cooney, Margaret was invited to join the team of renowned 3 Michelin Star restaurant The Waterside Inn under Alain Roux. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Margaret was the only woman on the team but it didn’t faze her. “I love working with lads in the kitchen, actually more so than girls. They just have a different mind-set I think. They’re very simple, they talk about three things: food, sex and football. That’s all they talk about so it’s kind of simple with them. At the same time they can be asses as well!” It was no problem then for Margaret coming in to Hugo’s and heading up a predominantly male team. In the beginning she was desperate to put her own stamp on things but she quickly realised big changes weren’t feasible.
I wanted to change everything and then I was stressing myself out. So that was massive, I’ve had to learn to step back and say ok, hold on Margaret, you know you can’t. Instead of changing everything really fast and half arsed I’m learning to take a deep breath and kind of change bit by bit. They’ve all been brilliant, a really good attitude towards any changes.
Her priority then became making changes easier on the team so she proceeded slowly, bringing them round to her way of doing things. Margaret insists on order, organisation and communication which she says is vital for a busy kitchen like Hugo’s. Her first few months were ‘mental’ but now her relationship with the guys is based on a balance between fun and hard work. “With the lads, I couldn’t ask for a better team. Don’t get me wrong there’s days that I absolutely go mad at them but I’m not in to shouting and cursing cause I don’t need to. There is a lot of camaraderie, especially at lunch time, so we’ll have the craic but at the same time I’ll be serious when you have to be serious.”
This balance is obviously working and the team are continuously impressing Gina. “Maggie is the best thing since sliced bread. She’s phenomenal, she has such a lovely style. She has a wonderful sous chef, a guy called Glen Sutcliffe, and John Brady is her third in command and they’re just such a wonderful team. They’re lovely and they’re young and they’re eager. It’s all about provenance, it’s all about making everything from scratch so it’s fresh deliveries every day and that’s it. It’s a pleasure, you can stand over every single dish.”
It is very clear that Gina has huge respect for all her staff and the feeling is apparently mutual as nearly all of the team in Hugo’s have been working with her for several years; something that is rare in this industry. Gina maintains they are like a family and she is their mother. “These guys are wonderful. All the crew here, like Ursula my general manager, she’s with me five or six years now. Everybody is long term and we are a family more than anything else. They’re gorgeous too and I love working with them.”
It’s not hard to see why they have all stuck by Gina’s side as her passion and love for the business radiates out of her when she talks about Hugo’s. When Gina was in college studying hotel management, Hugo’s was a restaurant called Galligan’s and she was a waitress there. When the owners transformed the site into Rubicon in the late 90s, they invited her back to be the restaurant manager and Gina spent several years there before pursuing business ventures in Mayo and Tullamore. When the Galligans decided to sell, they offered Gina first refusal and she jumped at the chance to get back to Merrion Row.
The move was risky and times were very hard through the recession. Gina got great advice from her mother who told her to keep her head down and work hard. She spent years putting everything she had back into the business with business partner Padraig McLoughlin so they could stay afloat but Gina says they loved every minute of it.
We never took any money out, we never took holidays. We just worked. But we loved it! I still love it, I love coming to work every day. It’s brilliant. And you know what, even through all the bad times, I still loved coming to work every day. It’s just so fantastic meeting people. It’s not hard you know, it’s not hard work. I’ve met the best characters. I’ve met the most fascinating people. Not in a million years would you ever meet them in normal life.
Gina gets such joy from her work that it’s no surprise she is more involved in the day to day running of the restaurant than other restaurateurs. Not content to be a silent owner, Gina is regularly doing full management shifts, opening up in the morning and shutting up shop at the end of the night. “I’m full time here, I don’t just breeze in and breeze out or anything like that. I’m on the roster just like anybody else and I work the floor and if needs be I take a station. I still know everybody by name and it’s so wonderful, the repeat business here, honestly it would do your heart good.”
That relationship with her customers is important to Gina as Hugo’s has retained a regular, loyal clientele since its opening. It was that clientele that kept Hugo’s open through the recession so Gina is grateful to them. “For the grace of God we are still here, that is the truth. It could have happened to us the way it happened to anybody else but we’ve been plugging away and very lucky to have good people around us and our location here is a lifesaver.”
The pressure of staying in business is enormous for restaurateurs, Gina explains how there is no safety net for self employed business owners. “You can’t go on the dole, you’re not entitled. And that’s something that has to change in this country. We don’t go into business to go out of business. Anybody who goes out of business needs all the help and support they can get.” For Gina though it is more important that her staff are looked after. She says she feels a massive responsibility towards them. “As they are committing to work for me, I have to commit to make sure that they get paid every week. They’ve all got mortgages, cars, kids to put into school. My youngest waiter is 27 and he’s married, they’re all in their 30s and 40s. This is their career.”
Gina can see the light at the end of the tunnel now as she says the economy is improving. “There’s a change in people’s confidence, there’s a change in their behaviour. Just in their demeanour coming in the door you know. People are nicer again, they’re not as heavy hearted as they were for the last few years. And it’s just lovely to see that coming back again. That buck back in the pocket makes all the difference.”
Although delighted that the hardest days are behind us, Gina doesn’t want Ireland to go back to the Celtic Tiger attitude as it doesn’t suit us as a nation. “It wasn’t nice and I personally thought a lot of people became quite rude. We would have noticed that first hand from the service industry. It just didn’t suit us. As a nation, we’re a very gentle people and it doesn’t suit us not to be nice to each other. And I’m not saying people weren’t nice but just they got a little bit snooty and it’s just nice to see everybody back to normal.”
With a restrictive economy there was no room for improvement but now Gina feels it’s time Hugo’s got a little facelift, “everything just needs a little tweak”. Part of the revamp is cosmetic with new furniture, ceiling cornices, new bathrooms and a fresh coat of that famous blue paint. Another new addition to Hugo’s is a full bar licence which will expand their drinks offering to include beer and spirits. The changes also continue behind the scenes as Margaret works with Gina to “move it up a notch” in relation to the food offering and reach a good level of standards and consistency.
I suppose we have changed a lot and we want to change a lot more as well, just pushing to get better and better. And we’re definitely getting there, like each week we’ll do something, put up a special and be like this is lovely dish you know. If I was to look at the menu now and look at the menu when we started I am proud of where we are. We have done a lot but in six more months I will look back to where we are now and go God we’ve done a lot more. Which is a lot easier said than done when you do want to change everything but that’s the way we’re going and if it is going to take 2 to 3 months to change it, let it be. But it will be done right.
For Margaret, improvement comes from constant learning, seeing what the rest of the industry is doing. “There’s amazing places in Dublin now and it kind of motivates you to push the lads here. They themselves need to do it, it’s so important to look at what’s out there, to keep researching. I’d love to go on stages, I’d love to have the time to run over to England or go down to the lads in Locks, go to Amuse and see what they’re doing.”
Time seems to be exactly what the ladies in Hugo’s need to keep improving and implementing their changes. While Gina is back at college studying for her Masters in Hospitality and Hotel Management, she is really looking forward to the next phase of Hugo’s. “I’ve just signed a new 25 year lease on the business so that’s another part of all this, I’m reinvesting because it’s the start of new era. It’s me going forward on my own, new lease, Maggie’s on board and a special restaurant licence. I’m here to stay.”
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo