Gina Murphy, owner of Hugo’s Restaurant on Merrion Row, is from Ballina in Co. Mayo. She grew up in Bartra House Hotel, located on the main street of the town, bought by her mother after her father died. Her mum was left a very young widow aged 36 with seven children under 12. According to Gina, “Dad was from a family of flour millers in Ballina, and he met my Mum when they both worked in the Dock Milling Company in Dublin. They returned to Ballina after they married and he took over running the family mill. He sadly died of undetected stomach cancer at 38. My Mum believed that there would be better opportunities for us in hospitality and she bought the hotel in Ballina in the 1970’s which she developed into our family business. She had never worked in a hotel before, but her brother Ray was a hotel manager, and he came down from Dublin and ran the hotel with her. She was such a hard worker, but wonderfully fun. “If I could be half the woman my mother was it would be a great achievement. She was a tremendous woman, very fair, very compassionate, very kind, and great craic. We had a great childhood because of her”.
So, for someone who grew up in the industry, what is her first memory of the business? “I remember when my mum got the keys of the hotel her whole family turned up from Dublin to help clean & redecorate the place. As kids, once we hit 10, we earned our pocket money by stacking bar shelves and sorting the empty bottles into crates, and I loved it. As we got older, we did a summer in each department; I did a summer in housekeeping, in the bar, in the kitchen, working functions and at the disco. We got an all-round experience at a very young age and it was all I wanted to do. I just loved it; I have always loved it”.
Unfortunately, during her Leaving Cert year in school the hotel went into voluntary liquidation. Gina took nearly 3 months off school that year to help at home. Nonetheless, she didn’t miss out, as when she returned to school, her friends had filled out a CAO application on her behalf to do Hotel Management in Cathal Brugha Street and she got it. So, in 1988, aged just 16, she moved to Dublin for college.
Gina’s first job in Dublin was waitressing in Casper and Gambini’s on Wicklow St, where she worked five nights a week to support her studies. She did however drop out of college after 2 years (“I was too young to appreciate it”) but returned some years later and completed Business Studies for Travel & Tourism. She recently went back to study for her Masters in Hotel Management, and during Covid she also completed a post grad in Design, Innovation and Leadership in UCD.
At 17 she moved to France and trained in the Dordogne region before moving to Salzburg and across the States, continually working her way up in hotels & hospitality businesses.
An opportunity to work with family again brought her back to Ireland. “My brothers opened a fabulous place in Ballina called Murphy Bros & Longnecks Nightclub, and I ended up running the restaurant for them. It was very successful; they ran a great operation. In 1996 I came back to Dublin and worked in La Stampa with Paul Flynn & Declan Maxwell before Robbie Fox gave me my first management position in Dublin as general manager of Tante Zoe’s in Temple Bar, a big, busy 3 floor restaurant. I also worked for Fitzers for a while and then I started in Rubicon on Merrion Row”.
The next significant stage for Gina was when she met Padraig, her husband to be, who worked with FXB Restaurants. Together they went down to Ballina and took on the lease for the restaurant and bar in Crockets on the Quay, which was also owned by her brothers.
“We bought our own place in Tullamore three years later; The Wolftrap, and we ran it from 2004 until 2011. But in 2007 the owners of Rubicon contacted me to offer me first refusal on buying the premises. I couldn’t turn it down. And so, Hugo’s was born”. The name comes from the Huguenot cemetery which is a few doors down from the restaurant. I wanted to ground the business in the elegance and history of the area it is located in.
Gina had been used to bustling bars as well as fine dining. For example, in both Crockets and The Wolftrap she had over 70 staff to service bar food, fine dining and a late bar/ nightclub. “A quiet lunch in The Wolftrap was 180-200 covers, Sunday lunch was 700-800 covers with table service. So being back in Dublin wasn’t daunting at all”.
“I had no fears about having a business in Dublin, what struck me when we came back here was that we were only gone six or seven years, but it had changed so much; the wealth was astonishing, and it was Celtic Tiger wealth. We had 13 different champagnes here when we opened, we had the highest sales of Dom Perignon in the city. We opened in August 2007 so you can imagine the atmosphere! After the crash we didn’t sell one bottle of champagne for three years. I’m 14 years here now, it’s been a roller coaster”.
Gina continues, “We wanted to be up-market but not stuffy, good food, good service but without the linen on the tables. (I always remember my Mum lamenting the hidden cost of linen in the hotel!). Hugo’s has always very well received. I am here working every day and we have a lot of local repeat business, I know most people by first name. Corporate is our clientele during the week and friends and family at weekends, with a lovely mix of tourists sprinkled in. Our standards are very high, our service and attention to detail is very professional, but we’re very friendly”.
Over the 14 years in business chefs have come and gone so how does Gina maintain the hight standards of food that the restaurant is known for? “We buy Irish produce, from Irish producers. I’m a big fan of local growers and supporting Irish wherever we can. That is extremely important to me and it helps us maintain our consistency”.
For someone who has grown up in the industry and has had a decades long career, there must have been challenges? “Yes, of course, but you keep going. My marriage broke up and we are no longer in business together, but we have remained good friends and we have huge respect for each other. Other challenges through the years? We signed a deal with an organisation to sell them The Wolftrap. Before the transaction was finalised that organisation went into NAMA and it was a big struggle to not go down with them, it was very frightening. It took a lot of fighting to keep our heads above water, we had a lot of legal battles to fight before we came out of it. That was very stressful”
So, is that where Gina has inherited some of her mother’s strength and resilience? “There’s definitely a bit of grit in us. I learned a lot of valuable lessons from the adversity. But the last 18 months have been the most challenging of all times in our industry. I’m very grateful to my landlord who has been so understanding. I’m very honest with him. I don’t hide anything. I’m very straight up with facts, that’s what gave me the confidence to approach politicians in the way I have done through this latest ordeal for our industry”.
Gina served as President of the Restaurants Association of Ireland from 2007-2009, and had served as Vice President for three years previously. Following from her work with the RAI, she served two full terms on the board of Failte Ireland. She has also worked with HOTREC, the association that works with all hotel and restaurant groups throughout Europe, as well as being on the Catering JLC, and reports that she really enjoyed working on legislation as she loves detail and advocating for the industry. This has been very evident in what she has done for the hospitality industry over the last 18 months. She recently was made Chairperson of the ITAS (Irish Tourist Assistance Board)
At one point in mid-February 2020 when the world was only becoming aware of a “virus” that came from China and had spread to Italy, Gina recalls a very pertinent moment of working in Hugo’s one Tuesday evening and looking around at all the tables. They were fully occupied, and each one had local clients entertaining international business colleagues, or tourists. It was at that point she thought, if we lose tourism, even for a short term, it’s going to have a catastrophic impact on business.
“My very first phone call the next morning was to my bank manager, and I asked him for a moratorium on all my bank loans. He started laughing at me! My next phone call was to my landlord to just mark his cards that I thought we were going to be in for a rough ride, and he did the same, he laughed at me… they both thought I was mad!” The following week we had a booking for 40 people on a Sunday night and that group had two subsequent bookings with us in March. The first email I got on the Monday morning was, ‘Gina, thanks so much for a great night last night but we will have to cancel the next two bookings as we’ve been told to start limiting our international travel’. And that was the start of it. Over the next three days we got over three hundred cancellations”.
According to Gina, from that point on she knew everything was about to collapse. “I started writing to everybody, I wrote to Ministers, I wrote to the Chairman and CEO of Failte Ireland, I called them. After so many years in business I am a keeper of statistics, and I was able to say this is my level of business, this is normal levels, this is what levels will fall to if the cancellations keep coming in. I went down to Doheny and Nesbits on the Wednesday night armed with spreadsheets, and collared some ministers. I brought them into the snug and said to them you need to see this, this is coming and it’s going to be a catastrophe. I just started to get the word out to everybody”.
But did anyone listen at this early stage? “They had to very quickly. Three weeks and over three thousand cancellations later I was sitting in front of my landlord. I said I have to close the business. It was the 13th of March. He said to me, “after our last phone call I laughed all the way home, and you have proved us wrong”. They agreed to talk the next week. “I hated the fact that I was right. It was devastating. Exhausting. I hadn’t slept in weeks. But having come through all the legal battles we had come through with The Wolftrap, along with the last recession, I had learned, I have to be thinking ahead all the time. You have to be looking at what is coming down the line”.
So, as well as her lifelong experience in the industry, her policy experience meant she was ahead of the curve in terms of what she saw coming for the industry in 2020. While Gina is credited for advocating for the industry at every level in government and the media from such an early stage in the pandemic, her view is she shouldn’t have had to. “We should have an exclusive minister for tourism. Nearly every other country in Europe does. I feel that it’s an insult to our industry and the phenomenal people who work in it. 1 in 10 are employed in Tourism & Hospitality in Ireland. 1 in 10.”
Gina’s focus now is on the longer-term plan for Merrion Row where her restaurant is located. She believes it needs to be permanently pedestrianised and marketed as a cultural quarter and an amenity for the city in terms of its unique position as the corridor between a number of centres of culture. “We are on the doorstep of The National Gallery, The National Museum, The RHA, The Dead Zoo, The National Concert Hall, MoLi & Government Buildings. You have to walk down Merrion Row to get from one to another. This street should be traffic free, it should be a street for pedestrians to wander down”. Merrion Row is home to 11 hospitality businesses and other retailers who Gina organised into a trade group called BOOMR. (Business Owners & Operators of Merrion Row). “We’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. The pandemic has allowed us to see our city in a very different light, it’s pretty special without traffic. I submitted to Dublin City Council last July, and subsequently through the Strategic Plan for Dublin ‘22-27, to have our street pedestrianised. I have found the council very good to work with, but it is going to take a few years”.
Wrapping up the interview I ask Gina what it’s really like running a restaurant for the last 14 years. She laughs and tells me that she’s fortunate that her partner, Ed Cooney (who is the Executive Chef in the Merrion Hotel), is in the same trade. “He understands the hours I work, I’m so lucky he gets it”. But she says it has also offered her so many opportunities which, had she been in another trade, she would never have had. “For instance, I love music & going to gigs, and I’ve gotten to become genuine friends with so many amazing international musicians through them coming into the restaurant, how cool is that?”
She finishes by saying “Hospitality is enthralling. I am totally captivated by the people I meet and the friends I’ve made, whether they be work colleagues or customers. People are fascinating. Everybody has a story, you just have to find it”.