The life and times of Mario Barone, co-owner of Gino’s Coffee Bar

Words:Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Orlando Gili

My name is actually Franco, but everybody knows me by my middle name, Mario. I was born in Puglia, south Italy, but grew up in Turin. I came to London on holiday in 1976, aged 20, found a girlfriend, found a job and I’m still here. This is my real home.

Back in Italy I’d been a welder, but after arriving in London I got a job at a sandwich bar in Old Street and I have been in the food business ever since. I spoke no English, so for the first couple of months I did the washing up, before progressing to making teas and coffees. By the time I’d learnt to make the sandwiches I’d been offered another job in Bank that paid more money.

After that, I spent six months managing a cafe in Moorgate, then worked at Bar Reno on Dover Street. After grafting there all day, I would go on to my second job at a club on Greek Street from 10pm until 3am. I worked day and night until I’d saved enough to buy my first flat.

I then rented a sandwich bar on Dover Street and ran it for 12 years, and it became a very busy place. But the landlord started to ask for more and more money. Eventually I decided to pack my bags and make a business somewhere else—I wanted my own shop. In Fulham, I found the perfect place to open an Italian delicatessen, which became very successful. I sold it in 1997, began investing in property and was eventually making enough money to live without working.

But I only retired for a few years. My business partner here at Gino’s had three different shops and would always find himself short of a manager—maybe one of them would be sick or away on holiday. He would call me up and I’d work one week here, one week there. I ended up working more than I had before I retired!

A local landmark
We bought Gino’s Coffee Bar 10 years ago. It has been here since 1932. We planned to change the name, but as soon as we took it over, the cafe got busier and busier. Gino’s was a landmark, a meeting point, so we decided to stick with the name because everybody knew it. As the English say: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

We are open six days a week, Monday to Saturday. I arrive at 4am. Though we don’t officially open until six, sometimes the cafe is full by five. Our fry-ups are the best in the area. Honestly, once people try our breakfasts they won’t go anywhere else. A good breakfast in the morning will keep you going all day: bacon, sausage, egg, beans, chips, toast, tea, coffee. Our prices are very reasonable. We are not interested in being millionaires—we are happy to just make a living. Our food is good and everything is made fresh. And we always try to make our customers happy.

People often ask if Gino’s is a family business. It isn’t, but we are definitely like a family. I’ll give you an example: I have a lady washing up in the kitchen who was with the previous owner for 34 years and has now been with me for 10 years. So, she must like it here! Gino’s definitely has a family atmosphere. Obviously we have to hurry when the cafe is busy, and customers who have trains to catch need to be served quickly, so we have to be fast as well as good. It’s no use being just one or the other.

I would say roughly 90 per cent of our customers are regulars, some of whom are famous, including Raymond Blanc. One time, he brought along a jar of jam made by his mother. He asked to keep it here so he could have jam on his toast. I kept the jar in the fridge for him.

We do get the occasional strange customer, especially early in the morning—people who’ve missed their last train home. They drink all night, then see me put the light on and try to come in. But this is part of the game. If they are very drunk or seem a bit dodgy I will tell them that although the light is on we are still closed.

Direction-giving millionaire
I enjoy my job and don’t actually see it as work. I enjoy socialising with my customers and staff. I love talking to people. And we are constantly giving people directions, telling them how to get to Madame Tussaud’s or Regent’s Park, for example. If I could charge 50 pence for every person who came asking for directions, I’d be a millionaire.

I work six days a week and then on Sunday when I don’t work, I still work. I live on my own and every Sunday morning I go for a run, a swim or a cycle. I then clean my flat, go shopping and catch up on my paperwork, plus everything else I didn’t have time to do during the week. I also spend time with my two young children, who are 15 and 12.

Two years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and needed chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I didn’t take any time off work. I’d go for radiotherapy in the morning and would then come straight here. I lost four stone in two months. People would come into the cafe and ask: “Where is Mario?” And I’d reply: “You’re talking to him.” They didn’t recognise me because of all the weight I’d lost. But slowly, slowly, I’m recovering. Fingers crossed.

Even though I have a strong Italian accent, I consider myself British. And I’m proud to be. I came to London when I was 20 years old and am now 62, so I grew up here; this city is my home. When we’re driving through central London, my son will often tell me that I should be a taxi driver, because I know all the one-way systems and the backstreets. And I say to him: “Well I grew up in London. That’s why I know everything.”