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“I couldn’t see myself ever doing anything else… This is my DNA” – A Chat With Gina Murphy, Owner of Hugo’s – With Outmin

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Hugo’s has been a staple to Dublin’s restaurant scene since 2007, with Gina Murphy holding down the fort from the very beginning. Upon entering this stylish spot, it is evident that Gina adores what she does. It’s not everyday that we see an owner serving tables at their own restaurant, but Gina’s friendly face always brings a bright light even on the greyest of Dublin days.

Gina Murphy Interview Hugo's 1

Chatting to Gina is effortless – she is friendly and light-hearted, and her experience in the hospitality industry dates back to when she was a baby.

“I grew up in our family hotel, my mum had a hotel in Ballina in County Mayo… my dad died suddenly at 38 leaving my mum a widow at 36 with seven of us under the age of 12… She bought a hotel… and that’s how I grew up. We didn’t get pocket money, you had to earn it. We all worked weekends during school time and then every summer was spent in a different department… it was an all-round education. I just ate slept and drank the hotel.”

It seemed as though Gina was set for life, but sadly, they lost the hotel during the recession in the 80s right as she was doing her Leaving Certificate. Stuck for what to do, her school friends had already decided her fate for her and had filled out her CAO form, applying to DIT (at the time) for Hotel Management, making her the only one in her family to go to college.

Everybody remembers their first few jobs – the feeling of being in an entirely new environment, making your way up the ladder. For Gina, Hugo’s is now in the same space that one of her jobs in college once was.

“I didn’t get a grant so I had to pay my way. I was working in restaurants in Dublin and I worked in this little Italian place at nighttime… I ran it for them as manager years later and then went off to open my own place with my then-partner [in Mayo]… but I’d always stayed friends with the owners of the place and I always said to them, ‘If you’re ever selling, would you give me first dibs?’. They called me in 2006 and said they’re looking to retire, so I am back in the building I waited tables in when I was in college, this is Hugo’s now.”

Despite this, Gina’s journey was not a straight road. Before opening Hugo’s, Gina and her then-partner opened a handful of places across Ireland before returning to Dublin. They started off with a restaurant in Ballina where she grew up, which turned into a family operation with her brothers handling the bar as she managed the food. They then opened a late-night bar and restaurant in Tullamore, called the WolfTrap. Although these were two largely successful operations, Gina and her partner knew that they needed to be “somewhere near population.” When the opportunity to open Hugo’s came about, they jumped at it, and here it is, still standing 17 years later.

Hugo’s is Gina’s baby – she hand-picked everything, from the fabric, to the wallpaper, to the furniture. With regards to cuisine, it started off French. “We’re 100% Irish now, but we’ve still kept the grassroots of classical cooking. 95% of our products are local Irish, artisanal where possible, organic where possible. [We are] really, really big supporters of Irish food… The quality of Irish produce is just remarkable, it’s up there on the world stage.”

Her team is just as passionate about Irish produce as she is, with her head chef Michael Morrisroe and her general manager, Justin Owen, both sharing her aim to be very “standard driven, quality driven and very much Irish driven.” With this, Gina gives a shoutout to her favourite Irish producers, though she notes she could spend hours just talking about that very subject.

“I’ve seen how things have become so family orientated and I love it. Take Sean Ring – Sean, who rears the chickens, delivers the chickens himself, and sometimes his little daughters come with him, it’s gorgeous… Look at Velvet Cloud down in Mayo… [they] are fabulous, Andarl Farm‘s fabulous. Up here in Dublin, The Gnomes who grow our microgreens, they were a bunch of friends who got together over Covid and… asked DCU for some of their lands [to] grow all their microgreens – how clever is that, how inventive is it? Shoutout to everybody – everybody that has the guts to do what they do is amazing in my eyes.”

Gina notes the importance of the tight-knit relationship she has with her producers. “There’s a bond created between our suppliers and us. We would be very loyal to them.” She mentions how it’s a knock-on effect, and that many small businesses are family-run operations which should not be taken for granted.

Through this, Gina reflects on what the hospitality industry was like when she first opened, versus now. I asked her what the most challenging experience was since opening Hugo’s.

“I opened in the height of the Celtic Tiger… I’ve seen the crash, I’ve seen a recession, I’ve seen volcanic clouds… you name it. But honestly, Covid wins, hands down. Covid was horrific. I lost all my beautiful staff, they were all with me for years. I was truly heartbroken. The average age of my staff was 44. These were grown adults with children and mortgages and rent to pay, and what broke my heart was that they were expected to live and provide for their families on a PUP payment of 350 quid a week… I genuinely get upset just talking about it, it’s traumatic. Recessions and crashes can’t hold a candle to the personal turmoil that the people of our industry experienced during Covid.”

Speaking to Gina, it’s very clearly to see how much she adores her work, and this industry. As someone who grew up around it, it’s her heart and soul. After Covid, she had to start from scratch.

“I lost 23 out of 27 staff… it was starting from scratch and it was one of the most difficult things ever [to] start up an existing business, because we knew the way that we needed it ran but nobody else did. It took 18 months.”

During the height of Covid, the restaurant was closed for 7 months, since the food served at Hugo’s was not made for takeaway. During this time, Gina made the decision to go back to college to do a postgraduate diploma in design, innovation and leadership. Since the course was entirely online, she had not met any of her peers in person, but they bonded online through virtual drinks and parties.

“When we got to reopen outdoors, I was working one day and one of the guys came down to me and said this girl at the door is looking for you… I go up and it was the girl that was in class with me. We just burst into tears and just hugged each other, and we had never met.”

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Post-Covid recovery was tricky after training their entirely new team, because outdoor dining created its own challenges. “It took 200% more effort to do the outdoor dining, because everything was a million miles away from where you needed it to be… We had tables that were 30 yards from the front door… I have never had to work in such difficult circumstances as trying to survive through Covid and the aftermath.”

I naively say to Gina that they’ve gotten through the thick of it and are on the other side, but she mentions to me that the adjustment now is surrounding customers’ daily lives, particularly with working from home become a more permanent addition to people’s working lives. “Friday, which was our busiest lunch, is now our quietest.” This has a trickle down effect into the weekend, because office outings are no longer as common as they once were, cutting a significant chunk of restaurants’ customers.

“Our average table size on a Saturday used to be about eight, now it’s probably four. Our cover count has dropped as well because of it, because everybody has got very comfortable in their own surroundings in the suburbs. They’re not coming into town as much as they used to. When you put the crazy cost of business… into the mix, it’s a really hard-fought battle for any restaurant in the city centre to stay credible, but also to stay viable.”

“I recently, just this week, wrote to every single TD in the Dáil… outlining the expenses of this business, because I just don’t feel that people really understand how everything has been flipped on its head. My utility bill used to be €4200 every two months… My average utility bill last year, for two months, was over €14,000. My last one for Christmas was €16,000. That is with a 14% decrease in opening hours… That’s before I pay rent, rates, insurance, phone lines, broadband, security, maintenance or wages. That’s before I open the door or spend a penny on raw produce for our menus.”

Gina expresses that an issue she is facing now, in particular with her staff, is the cost of living. “I spent nearly three months searching for an apartment for two of my staff. There was no accommodation in the city centre, and the prices were out of reach, for people that were on good money. We need to be living in the city centre, because public transport doesn’t look after us for the hours that we need to be getting home.”

I ask her if she thinks there is a solution. She notes that the utilities are the biggest problem, because it’s unsustainable. “People are being forced into not being able to operate prudently and responsibly, and this is why we are seeing restaurants closing their doors.”

“The government has a lot to do. They need to tackle the energy costs, and they need to tackle the housing situation here, especially in the city… I’m very protective over all my staff, I’d walk over coals for them. I always think of this as a collective… I feel my responsibility is to them.”

Despite the difficulties of running a restaurant in the current economic climate, Gina insists that her favourite part of working in the industry are the people.

“I’ve made so many friends from all walks of life, and I get to laugh heartily every single day. It’s an absolute joy… I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t working in this industry, every day here is an adventure… It’s the people that make it, it’s just wonderful. I couldn’t see myself ever doing anything else… That’s why I fight… to protect it for all the people that get the same joy out of their work as I do… I always revel in the conversations that I have… It’s just a beautiful, beautiful industry.”

She goes on to discuss the lifelong customers she has gained from her time in Hugo’s. She has watched families grow up there, from people who have brought their children as toddlers, who return years later with their partners as married couples, or with their own children. “I have seen families blossom, [it’s] such an honour that we’re part of their traditions… This is my DNA.”

With Gina’s kickstart in hospitality coming from her childhood, through her mother’s hotel, it’s only right when she mentions that her mum was her biggest influence when opening Hugo’s.

“My mum will always be my biggest everything – inspiration, influence, everything. Sadly we lost her on Christmas day in 2014. I always hark back to my childhood and how wonderful and magical it was growing up in a hotel. I always looked up to the staff there… they had such patience with us… My mum, she was just wonderful, but she was adamant that everyone was equal, from head chef to the bottle washers. Nobody was above anybody else… You would never ask anybody to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.”

She reminisces over the head chef that worked in the hotel at the time, Pat McCarthy, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago. Gina tells me that all of the old staff were at the funeral in Ballina. “Pat was a gorgeous soul. His kitchen was like the one in Ratatouille – it was full of chefs in white jackets and tall hats and stoves jammed with gigantic pots making stocks, and consommé like you’ve never tasted… I found some of his menus from the 1980s, so I brought them up to the restaurant here and next year we are going to replicate them here in Hugo’s.”

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I ask her what her biggest achievement to date is: “Staying in business.”

She also takes this chance to shout out some of her favourite businesses, though she admits she does not have a favourite cuisine and goes with whatever she’s in the mood for.

“D’Olier, Uno Mas, Dax, One Pico – they’re all beautiful. And equally, I love Las Tapas de Lola, I like Pichet… My favourite places are my favourite because it’s the people I’m with, it’s the company.”

When it comes to the home, many of those who work in this industry may have people in their life that don’t understand its demands, but for Gina, her partner is Ed Cooney, executive chef at The Merrion Hotel.

“We understand each other’s unsociable hours and commitments… he’s wonderful. He gives me great advice… He just listens, and he makes you a cup of tea at midnight when you come home after a 15 hour shift.”

In terms of travel, she notes that London is great for diversity, with their markets and huge range of cuisines available. For culture, she mentions Portugal and Spain, and in particular, Bilbao. “We spent a week in Bilbao… we nibbled our way around… Little glasses of wine in the middle of the afternoon, Tapas, wander some more, visit a museum. It was a great week.”

I recently had a chat with Ed Cooney, and he mentioned to me that his guilty pleasure was a spice bag, which he notes Gina introduced to him. However, when I asked her what hers was, she only notes that her actual pleasure is having dinner with Ed.

“We do it at least once a week. We set the table, we put out the wine glasses… We both work nights, but when we’re off together in the evenings, we always sit at the dining table and have dinner with each other. I think that’s so important. It allows us to have lovely conversations… He cooks every night. I haven’t cooked since I met him.”

She tells me that the only times she’s ever cooked, it would have been a roast chicken, which is her favourite thing to eat as well, so Ed cooks it every Sunday just for her.

As someone who has been in this industry since before she could walk, Gina has a lot of advice to give to anyone starting out.

“You have to be smart. You have to have a stash of burn cash… it’s money to cover you for a few months till you get on your feet to the pay those bills as they’re coming in. The till doesn’t always ring immediately. One of the best things I ever did was to employ an in house financial administrator. You wouldn’t run your kitchen without a chef, so you shouldn’t even consider running a business without somebody in daily control of your finances. And this part is crucial…. you put the money aside every week that isn’t yours. You put aside the PRSI, the VAT, the holiday pay, and your suppliers. It’s not yours. Do not be tempted to use it for cash flow.”

On a personal level however, she notes that you should not be too hard on yourself, and take a break or a day off – “I should take my own advice.” She also asserted that you should always thank everyone – the people you work with, the people who supply you, the people who dine at your restaurant, even those who just make an inquiry. “Sometimes we take things for granted. Just thank people.”

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Interview by Sara Abdulmagid

I’m a Palestinian who grew up in Cyprus and moved to Dublin in 2013, so I’ve had a mishmash of different cultures and cuisines surrounding me my whole life. I’m an avid foodie, and after realising that life as a lawyer was not for me, I studied media and became a radio host for Dublin City FM. I’m now writing for TheTaste full time, but I also have my own food blog where you can find a mixture of restaurant reviews and the occasional recipe. I talk a lot about being Palestinian; to be honest, I talk a lot in general. That’s why I did radio!

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