I started my career as a barman in Dublin. The city in the 1980s was incredible and I really fell in love with the pubs there. They were extremely busy and there was no food whatsoever in pubs apart from ham sandwiches, cheese sandwiches and, of course, the gourmet option, which was a ham and cheese sandwich. I think they cost about 90p each and a pint was £1.20.
In 1989, I started my pub career in London with pubco Taylor Walker. The first site I worked in was the Magpie in Chelsea, which is sadly no longer with us. I also ran the Man in the Moon on the Kings Road, Chelsea, for Scottish & Newcastle.
Then I came back to Taylor Walker and ran the Marlborough in Richmond. It was around this time that I got married and started my family – I now have four kids.
Early days of pub food
After the Marlborough, I worked in a really successful pub called St Margaret’s Tavern in Twickenham. Pub food was still only about sandwiches until about the early ’90s because a lot of operators didn’t really understand the fact that people might want to eat proper food in pubs.
Actually, at about this time, I was involved in a project with Taylor Walker where we looked at the future of pub food and, funnily enough, some of the pubs we looked at that were serving great food were the likes of the Ship in Wandsworth [which Rogers had managed before taking on the Canonbury, in Islington], the Cow in Notting Hill and the Eagle in Farringdon.
We looked at these pubs in great detail and, to be perfectly honest, we didn’t have a clue what was going on. We were shirt and tie-wearing pub managers of the Al Murray ilk who really didn’t see the need at all to even have a plate in the pub, let alone put food on it.
I remember doing a menu once that didn’t involve having a kitchen at all. It was called “chef’s day off” – basically, it was a freezer under the bar with about eight premade dishes that you could put straight in the microwave that was beside the bar. It was such a disaster.
It was only around 1995 that I started doing food in my old pub the Marlborough because we had a grill there. In fact, we saw spectacular food growth in that pub, particularly because we had a garden and I really started getting into cooking.
The importance of publicity
The career I’ve had since grew from that experience. Actually, the man who judged the Evening Standard’s Pub of the Year competition, which was massive in the 1990s, reviewed the Marlborough because I’d somehow got a name for cooking kangaroo steaks on a grill. That really opened the door for me in terms of how important publicity and shouting about what you’re doing is.
This business – the Guinea Grill – I think is based on having ‘balls’. And with that, embracing the site’s history.
It’s an exceptional business and I think good companies, like Young’s, which owns the pub, will always look after its exceptions in an exceptional way. Young’s has looked after this site during the past 50 years in a brilliant way. The Guinea has been protected from a lot of changes: decor, the woodwork, the panels, the frontage, the back bar and the staff.
And, more importantly, the clientele has remained. It’s extraordinary. I quite often work the door and see the guests come in and we have people coming from the likes of Japan, America and Canada just to eat at the Guinea Grill because either they’ve been told to come by somebody who ate here in the past, or their grandfather, father or their uncle has told them about it. And it’s really special for them because it’s the same as it always has been.
I’m very sensitive about the history and heritage we have here, because the story is absolutely amazing. For instance in 1950, as a result of rationing, you couldn’t have steak. The guy who was here then had seen the business through the war and probably not made a penny – in fact, he probably lost money. In an attempt to get around the rationing, he decided, in entrepreneurial style, to drive to Yorkshire and fill the car with sides of beef, which he used to sell on a Saturday morning.
The first proper steakhouse
During the war, the American Embassy had set up just around the corner at Grosvenor Place, so the Americans would come in, desperate for a steak. He’d give them a pencil, they’d draw on the fat of the steak the bit that they’d want to eat, and he’d hack it off and char-grill it for them on the barbecue. It wasn’t until rationing finished that we realise what he opened was probably the first proper steakhouse in London.
All of a sudden, after the war, the place was busy. Greta Garbo, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, the big celebrities of the day all came here. And if you look in the toilets, we’ve still got autographs in there from people like Liza Minelli – just legends.
We want people to feel comfortable, safe, and well-looked after when they come to the Guinea Grill. I think there’s an intangible love and happiness that’s ingrained in the place and I feel like a custodian of that, which is important.
The pub’s meat fridge – which customers can pick various cuts and steaks from as they enter the restaurant – was installed by the previous manager. The customers love it and it’s a wonderful sales tool for us. We’ve worked with butcher Godfrey’s in Finsbury Park for 30 years. We know we get the best.
You can’t make any big changes to this business, but, we can make lots of little ones. That said, you don’t really want to change the direction of this place anyway, but you can certainly streamline a few things. We constantly look at suppliers and the deals we’re getting on purchasing, I’ve looked at rostering to see how we can be more efficient.
Ultimately, the key to our success is consistency and great staff. It’s all about having the right people in the right positions.