This month’s VIP is Hugh Gaffney, co-owner of the thriving Luna Lounge Bar and Restaurant on Avenida del Mexico (shown on the right in the photo). Getting Mr Super Busy to stop and be interviewed was no mean feat! Hugh please give us a little information about your early years.
I was born in Portlaoise, a small town of about 20,000 people in Southern Ireland, which I left when I was 19 to work in Paris, France for a year and half, then back in Ireland I was a tour guide for French tourists. I then lived in the Algarve, Portugal for 18 months, working as an overseas rep for an Irish tour company. They subsequently moved me on for seasons in Mallorca, Tenerife, and Israel.
That sounds like a lot of fun!
Oh yes it was! I had some really good experiences. There was the safety net of having the Irish connection but it was great living in different places. Living in the sun in my 20s with copious amounts of alcohol – yes it was fun! Then I lived in the UK for 3 and half years, working for Japan Airlines at Heathrow as a passenger services supervisor – I’ve always been in customer service and tourism. I lived in Hounslow – this is a very Indian area – I was the only white person on the whole street! The Asian community were wonderful, all very welcoming and friendly, I had many good friends, Indian, Pakistani, Muslim and I really enjoyed being there.
Then back to Dublin, Ireland, working with American Airlines. I became a training instructor responsible for European training of sales, reservations, customer services – I wrote the curiccula for officers to go around the world giving those courses, in addition to giving 4 week training courses for people joining. It was a very interesting job.
When did you first come to Bucerias?
That was 28 December 2004. I came over from Dublin with my friend Nathalie who wanted to visit her cousin – Sharon Bell who was then waitressing at Karen’s Place – small world! Gecko was the only bar, and there were only a couple of beach bars. It was a great vacation, we visited PV and Sayulita. Then back to work in Ireland and one day the following November I got out of bed in the dark – as you do in November in Ireland – and sat at traffic lights in the dark and the rain for 20 minutes, the lights went from red to green but the traffic was not moving, and I got frustrated and wondered: “Is this what I’m going to do until I retire, sit in the traffic for the next 45 years?” And I said “No”. And then a tremendous peace came over me and I didn’t care if the lights were green or red. I realized I only have one life to live – yes, it was like an epiphany moment. I got to work and handed in my resignation – I’d had no intention of doing that when I got up! That was a 3 months notice period, during which I had to figure out what to do, where to go: it had to be a warm country and a beach and I thought of Croatia, Portugal, other European destinations and then … hang on: What about that little Bucerias! That seemed like a nice town! What would I do? Well – who better to open a bar than an Irishman!
So, I came here 8 March 2006, Sharon was still working with Karen, she’d been here two years by then and she suggested we run a bar together, and as I was green about everything Mexican I thought that was a good idea. So we opened the Shamrock Bar in May 2006 and ran it for one and a half years. By the way those premises, owned by Iain and Arturo, had previously been la Rosa Mexicana, and then Reggie’s Hangout – a karaoke bar, and then empty when we looked at it, and now it’s gone full circle and Iain and Arturo have their business Esquina 22 there.
Where did you meet Simon?
In the Shamrock! He was in Guadalajara and his friend had to come here for business and asked him to accompany her. He was very much against driving down to “that sleepy little town” but she sat outside his place, at 7 in the morning, hand on the horn and swore she was not leaving without him, so he came under duress. He stayed just around the corner and came in to the Shamrock – I had just started my night shift – and the rest as they say is history. He had studied accountancy, and worked in California for several years as an interior designer. He commuted between Guadalajara and here for 8 months before settling here to work the Twisted Rose with me.
I understand you’ve been married twice.
Yes – both times to Simon ! We were first married on 22 November 2008 on the beach at Karen’s Place. It was very symbolic as equal marriage was not permitted then as it is now in Mexico. We had friends come over from Ireland, Simon’s family, the full wedding and dinner, full on. Then in August 2013 we had our civil partnership over in Ireland. This year the referendum passed in Ireland recognizing equal marriage, but we need to have a “conversion ceremony” to convert from our Civil Partnership to a Civil Marriage.
Wow, wedding number three to the same partner – must be a record!
Perhaps so ! But we will not have a BIG wedding – just a very small, intimate ceremony with dinner afterwards.
Next business – the Twisted Rose.
I sold my half of the Shamrock to Sharon, and Simon and I opened the Twisted Rose in February 2008, which we ran for 2 years before taking on business partners.
An Irishman running a bar called the Shamrock – that’s fair enough, but where did the name Twisted Rose come from?
I was sitting on the beach with Glen and Tanya from Yo Yo Mo’s, discussing my plans for opening the bar, and for whatever reason I bought her a rose from one of the vendors. She unwrapped it to put it into a bottle of water and the stem was a crooked, S shaped, and we laughed and I said I’d bought her a twisted rose… and I said that again and l liked the way it ran off my tongue. Translated into Spanish that should be Rosa Torcida but we went with La Rosa Chueca meaning crooked, the sentiment being as in something different.
But after 6 months things didn’t work out with our partners, so we moved on again and started up the Luna Lounge early in the high season of 2011.
You’d put in a cement floor at the Rose – did you have much work to do at Luna Lounge?
Well the back area was a total jungle! So of course we had to clear that, and paint and upgrade everywhere to make seating. We decided we wanted it open air, no roof, to see the beauty of the sky and the moon. There was Luna Luna on Lazaro Cardenas but as they were just serving breakfasts we didn’t think there would be too much confusion between a breakfast café there and a bar venue here in downtown.
Is Luna Lounge a gay bar?
No. It happens to be a bar owned by two gay people, that doesn’t make it a gay bar. We opened as martinis and cheeseboard, up market, and enjoyed it but it was not bringing in the money we needed for the expensive rental overheads, paying the staff, etc, so we changed the concept, to a gay bar, and it back fired. Our gay customers stopped coming, as did the straight people. The gay people said “We used to come here because it is NOT a gay bar – what if my cousin or brother saw me, it would blow my cover”. After about three months we said: ok that didn’t work, try again! We’re still trying to shake off that label.
So you changed your business – but without actually having to move!
We changed things, starting with the food concept – Monday night was the slowest night of the week, it’s now BBQ 2 for 1 ribs, and we’re very busy – we’ve gone from 10 customers to 200 ! And then live entertainment the rest of the week, and mostly our shows are 95 – 98% sold out.
We all know operating a business, especially in a foreign country, is hard work, and a venue such as yours entails long hours. What do you do in an average day?
Simon is totally in charge of the food side, the shopping, ordering and prepping. He puts the menus together, decides on the marinades, and now the staff know what he wants, he does quality control. He still makes the soups. I do all the advertising, publicity, reservations, book the shows, deal with the staff. For both of us that’s the “day job”, 8 hours, and then begins the second job, 6 – 8 hours, hands on: Simon checking in the kitchen, waiting tables, or behind the bar, while I meet and greet, wait tables, do the sound and lighting during a show, and the final thanking guests as they are leaving. Depending upon the night, we get to sit down about midnight or 1 a.m., then I unwind for an hour or so, it’s been a 14 – 16 hours day and I know I have to go through it all over again tomorrow!
But better than sitting in a car in the dark and the rain waiting for the traffic lights to change?
Definitely! I would not switch it back for a minute.
And we also know that you only have a short season – which seems to be getting shorter every year – in which to make your money.
Yes – the first 7 years here I was working full time, open all year round.
That’s 2 years at the Shamrock, 3 years at the Rose, and then the Luna Lounge.
That is not a practical way of spending my time, no money coming in during the summer. You are spending the money you made in winter and you can’t put money aside for future plans, so the money is all gone and at the start of the season you’re back at zero. You work your ass off 16 hours a day and then starve when the money runs out!
In the nine years since I first moved in, I’ve seen possibly 40 businesses open and close. People think they’ll come, make a lot of money and retire, but that’s not how it is, you don’t make a lot of money December to March, only enough to have a nice life.
You have worked in so many aspects of customer service – but never in the catering industry?
That’s right, and in the first several years of being in a business with no experience I made every mistake you could make! I lost more money than anyone should ever lose! When you are haemorrhaging money you have to learn quickly how to run a business. We worked in the summers in Ireland so that we could repay all our debts, that was a real priority.
Tell us about the Crazy Bitches drag show, how did that come about?
That’s a success story and a half isn’t it! At the Twisted Rose we brought in different forms of entertainment – I love live entertainment – and I was recommended to book Kim Kuzma. She was really great, very popular, that was the start, and then she told me of a bunch of guys who do a drag show, “try them” she said. And I said: “In Bucerias? Are you nuts?” But she said try and see. I advertised we were selling show tickets for 100 pesos, not including dinner, at no cover charge and sold out within 24hrs. Wow! That was 2010. We just had a total of 2 shows over the whole season and both were sold out.
Then once we had moved to Luna Lounge in 2011 we had them once a month January – April, all sold out!
In 2012 we decided every 2 weeks – all sold out!
In the season 2013 – 2014 we had a show once a week, Tuesday, and most weeks that sold out! So we did an overflow on Wednesdays, and that was every week January – March.
This year 2015 it will be one show a week up to Christmas and then 2016 will be 2 shows a week to April.
Will you continue with the dinner shows?
Definitely! The dinner show is something good for people to do in Bucerias.
We’ve added other cabaret acts which proved to be hugely successful – Miss Conception, Well Strung – that’s a 4 piece string quartet, the various impressionists – Dame Edna, Elvis Presley, Patsy Kline – we are super happy with the new concept and how it’s going.
Apart from yourselves, how many staff are involved?
In the height of season, 11.
And you pay the Social Security?
Yes, and Infonavit, that’s the housing, yes. It’s hard to keep the same staff as we close for the summer and obviously they need to get another job for low season and sometimes they stay in those other jobs. We have been lucky to have had our chef for 4 yrs, and we have kitchen staff who have stayed for 3yrs, and waiters 3 – 4 years. We feel as foreigners it is very important that we uphold our end of the deal that they are looked after and we live up to the expectations of the Social system.
Tell us about Infonavit, the Government housing scheme
The payment we make, (part of the salary) goes into an account in the employee’s name which he can use as a down payment on affordable housing in the Government scheme. Infonavit is a Government loan and he will pay less interest than to a bank which charges a huge amount. So it is paid to social housing and then as he keeps working it goes as a co payment to paying off the mortgage. There’s been a big increase in participation – getting a mortgage was never part of the Mexican culture – people would often give bricks as wedding gifts!
A lot of people think that if houses are not finished but have rebar sticking up it means you don’t have to pay the land tax, “predial”.
No, everybody has to pay the predial. The rebar is there for example if your son or daughter gets married and they have nowhere to build a house, then they can build on top with the existing rebar – again with wedding gift bricks!
Please tell us about your family – I know your Mum was here, you had her gainfully employed one time collecting tickets at the door at the Twisted Rose!
She’s actually been here four times I think it is, but it’s such a long journey and now we are so busy we just wouldn’t have any time for her. My father has also visited, but again it’s a long journey – it’s three flights, they are both in their 70s, and they see more of us when we go there.
What was their reaction when you told them you were moving out here?
It was not such a big shock due to all my travelling, but they did feel Mexico was so far away, and couldn’t I choose somewhere closer? Actually just going to Portugal can take all day with all the airport procedures! But of course the flight to get here is much longer. They weren’t worried about any dangers here for me – we have very unbiased news – because of course living in Ireland has had more than its fair share of danger, and anyway there is violence all over the world.
Sadly my brother died in 2000 aged only 31 of a heart attack getting out of bed. He was in very good health, it was a great shock to us all. The post mortem discovered he had arterio sclerosis – a little piece of plaque broke off from the artery and blocked the heart. Afterwards I was checked and got the all clear. I have no other brothers or sisters, there were just the two of us.
But now you have an extended family through Simon
Apart from his parents, I now have 10 brothers and sisters, 35 nieces and nephews, and grandnieces and grandnephews, I am very happy with all of that! I had thought that when my parents died that I would be all alone, my brother did not have any childen, but now I have Simon and his family. I am treated as part of the family, we laugh, joke, gossip, it’s wonderful!
Do they come down to visit?
They come down the whole time! Of course at Semana Santa, when there’s 14 or 15 of them sleeping on blow up mattresses on the floor! The names Hugh and Simon appear prominently in my family, the name Simon has been in every generation except this one, but now we do have a Simon – my Mum was so happy when I told her! And last year his brother called his new son Simon, so we have continuation of that name for the next generation.
You took Simon’s sister over to Ireland with you this summer.
Yes she loved it, she’s never been out of Mexico before, and she’s 44. We had 4 days sightseeing in London first – we all found it a bit cold! Family is number one for us and if anyone needs something and we can help, then we will do. Next year we will hopefully take another sister. We had to travel via Mexico City because Simon is still waiting for his American residency visa to be granted – and until it’s either approved or denied he cannot go into America at all, he can’t get even a tourist visa, they only process one visa at a time. He’s been waiting 14 years now and got another 2 years to go !
There’s a lot to be done before you go to Ireland
Yes we do a total break down so that nothing is damaged or stolen. Everything is packed away, and we wrap all the electrical equipment in cellophane against rust and humidity and mildew – tv, fridges, music system, and get it all off the ground in case of flooding. We get the cellophane from the place on the Northbound lateral here in Bucerias, Productos Industriales. Anything of value goes into storage. We have an end of season party when the plan is to get rid of as much alcohol and food as we can! We have promotions and deals, it’s a fun night! It takes a day to recover! Packing up everything takes 3 days, to unpack is 5 days! Fortunately we have Jaimie, chef and also bartender help, he’s a wonderful guy.
Your working holiday in Ireland – you have previously been self employed contractors painting and decorating houses inside and out, how’s that been?
It’s actually very therapeutic! But it’s also hard work, and we would rather do something not so strenuous. So this summer we took talavera serving plates, Mexican tablecloths and opened up a Mexican catering business to private parties. We catered several events throughout the summer and really enjoyed it, but also we worked for a friend of mine who created a revolutionary Ice Cream: Sugar Free, Mega pro-biotic, Dairy Intolerant friendly AND delicious!! We worked doing promotional events for his company at food fairs, events and exhibitions. It was a lot of fun.
I guess we are all wondering (hoping!) if we are going to see that ice cream here ! Do you have any pets?
We used to have a street dog, Sweetie at the Twisted Rose – she did not beg but customers gave her food even though we asked them not to ! Then one of the Crazy Bitches gave us this adorable puppy as a Christmas present, but with our travelling and the quarantine measures we had to re-house her.
How about hobbies?
I really don’t have the time! I try to play poker Saturday afternoons – that means working a bit harder on Friday and Saturday morning! I try for once a month, sometimes even manage twice a month if I’m really lucky! During the week Simon and I don’t even have the chance to sit and eat lunch or dinner together, so we give ourselves Sunday off – although we usually end up work half that in bookwork, prepping for the week etc. But once every 3 or 4 weeks through the season we book a sailboat to force us to take time off and relax.
Your Spanish is excellent, you obviously have a gift for languages – Portuguese, French, English and of course Irish !
I used to be fluent in Portuguese but now it’s slipping. I keep my French up with friends and customers here. Simon and I speak 95% Spanish – but English on the phone and sometimes if I’m really tired, I’ll speak English. My Irish has also slipped away – the News I can only pick up 50%, if that, and speak only about 10% in a basic conversation.
It’s important to make an effort to speak at least some of the language of the country you’re in, you appreciate so much more. If you just associate with English speaking people and don’t try, then you’re never going to learn, you have to make an effort.
Is Irish used much in Ireland?
About 20% of the population speak it as a first language. By law we all study it daily at school from ages 4 to 18, with English as the second language. But if you live in an English speaking part you don’t keep it up. But now it’s cool, there are more programmes on TV in Irish. In fact the series Friends was on in Irish before it showed in English to encourage people! For the kids it’s like a secret language!
All the bars and restaurants in town are so generous, giving in different ways to help the very many charities we have, and Luna Lounge is no exception. Thank you !
We give vouchers for our shows to be used as raffle prizes, 2 tickets for dinner and the show is 1,000 pesos in value. We focus strongly on the Tercera Edad senior centre with Todd, we do most of our fundraising for them, we feel the seniors is a really good charity. The Drag Races have been excellent fun! We also give for the food bank, and others where we give other raffle prizes. We are very lucky and blessed to be in Bucerias and that Luna Lounge is going so well.
And we really like when customers from over the years walk in the door at the start of the season, all the hugs and friendship, catching up on the news over the summer … it’s great, like meeting up with old friends.
Do you have any regrets, anything you wish you’d done differently?
Done differently? Yes – lots ! My early experiences here – I would change many things, way too numerous to mention! But do I regret any of it? No!
Thank you Hugh for your time, we wish you and Simon another successful season!