When husband and wife Derrick Aylward and Brenda Lawlor launched the Guv’Nor Pub on Elizabeth Avenue in June of 1993, there were no Boston Pizzas, no Fionn MacCool’s, and no Montana’s to compete with.
When they purchased the attached Centre City Hotel in 1999 and changed its name — along with just about everything else — to the Guv’Nor Inn, there was no Capital Hotel, no Sandman, no Holiday Inn Express and certainly no Airbnbs.
All that has changed in two-plus decades since they began their restaurant and hotel endeavour — chain restaurants dominate the dining landscape, with more coming every day, and there are several hundred more hotel rooms in the metro region, not to mention hundreds of new Airbnbs — and yet still the Guv’Nor lives.
“There’s many choices, so why would somebody decided to come here,” Lawlor asks rhetorically. “I don’t know that it’s always rate, I think that that’s a big piece of it, but I think the comfort, the friendliness, the location, the pub, the staff and the good food play a big part.”
Today, Lawlor and Aylward, celebrating 25 years of the Guv’Nor, feel fortunate and thankful that their guests have kept them in the rotation and continued to support a local hotel and restaurant in a time when there’s a growing myriad of choices.
“They’re comfortable here because they’ve got the pub, it’s not a high-end fine dining restaurant, they’re okay going over to get their liver and onions and most Newfoundlanders will bring the car in the room with them if they could,” says Aylward.
“We do have a few breakers getting tripped because they got their toaster and kettle in there because they’ve got to have a cup of tea before they go to bed. We’re very lucky that we’ve got that.”
Aylward and Lawlor had been married for about four years when they took over the lease of the restaurant and lounge in the Centre City Hotel, which was owned by his City Hotels (Newfoundland) Ltd. at the time, a company owned by Aylward’s family.
They contracted designer Marc Duncan to create an old English style pub. To this day, Lawlor can recall opening up boxes of artifacts and curio, much of which still adorns the walls today.
“Marc has always said this and I’ve lived by it: his designs would have worked 40 years ago and in 40 years’ time, they’ll still work,” says Aylward.
Sure, there have been aesthetic changes to the décor in the 25 years since, but they’ve always been done in keeping with the original design.
“We’ve changed a lot, but we’ve changed it so it looks like it always looked,” says Lawlor, noting that the Pub’s wallpaper and carpet have been changed three times over the years.
“We keep it as close to what it was because people are comfortable. They come back, walk in and it looks the same as it did 20 years ago, if it’s been that long.”
The same goes for the almost entirely homemade food coming out of the Guv’Nor’s kitchen. While some recipes have been tweaked slightly over the years, the menu remains largely unchanged. The cod au gratin, for instance, is still prepared using Lawlor’s late mother’s recipe.
They’ve also set themselves apart from much of their competition and carved out something of a niche by offering and expanding upon popular Newfoundland fare like homemade moose burgers, cod tongues and scrunchions, and white and blood puddings.
“We try to support and do what we can to support local and to deal as much as we can with local people because we would like to have the same support given to us,” Lawlor says. “You support local and you hope people will do the same.”
Aylward and Lawlor are cognizant of the changing commercial landscape and even they admit the notion of going up against chains can be a scary challenge. But they’re also confident that the model they’ve built is built to last.
“We’ve got a good solid base, we’re comfortable with it and we have the hotel to help us with the restaurant,” says Aylward. “If it weren’t for the hotel, I don’t know how well we would have done here because that really does help us in all kinds of ways.”
After six years of paying rent, Aylward and Lawlor came to realize that if they ever wanted to build any equity in the growing Guv’Nor brand, they would need to own the building, which meant purchasing the hotel.
The biggest challenge in taking over the hotel was doing away an unsavoury reputation it had earned as the Centre City Hotel.
“When we bought the building, everybody was telling us we were cracked because of the reputation,” says Lawlor.
Doing away with the rent-by-the-hour rap started with changing the name and was followed by a suite of renovations that entirely altered the interior and exterior of the property.
“We had a vision, we had a feel that we wanted to give the property and exactly how we would do that, how would we even know,” says Aylward.
To help fuel their creativity, they travelled back and forth to England a couple of times and drove around taking pictures of various pubs and inns.
“We used to take pictures of what the eaves looked like, the windows, the walls... we had all these pictures of bits and pieces of detail that we wanted put into the building,” he says.
Stonework on the front was modelled specifically to resemble that of the supreme court building in downtown St. John’s.
The end result is what people see today when they drive by; a sand-coloured structure with wrought iron lamp posts, antique sconces, and ivy climbing the walls.
Inside, meanwhile, guest rooms were updated with new wallpaper, bedding, carpeting, and furniture. Amenities like mini-fridges, microwaves, and coffee were added to every room. All of which is commonly found in today’s modern hotel room, but was a significant investment in the early 2000s for a hotel of the Guv’Nor’s size.
One of the best decisions Aylward and Lawlor made was to stop renting 10 rooms over the pub and convert them into a pair of function suites known as the drawing room and the study, both keeping with the aesthetic born in the pub downstairs.
“We thought ‘OK, now we’ll have meeting rooms and it’ll change the image of the building and we’ll pick up some guest rooms out of it, too,’” says Lawlor.
“I still say to this day, there’s no other banquet or meeting rooms in this city to compare to this.”
Within the obvious constraints of operating a small 37-room hotel in a 62-year-old building — the oldest standing hotel in St. John’s, having been started by Dr. Harry Roberts in 1956 as the Kenmount Motel and as direct competition for the former Hotel Newfoundland — their efforts and investments have been rewarded with a clientele that consists largely of “rubber tire traffic.” To stay competitive and capitalize on their central location in and proximity to the Health Sciences Centre, they introduced a special care rate for out-of-town patients visiting St. John’s for medical visits. They’ve also done well with small tour groups and various indigenous groups from around the province.
“We’re really lucky because we’ve picked up some regulars who really appreciate us. We’ve picked up a lot of Newfoundlanders and I think that’s our big thing, we don’t really go after the tourists and the come-from-aways. We’d love to, but we know we can’t compete,” admits Aylward.
But Lawlor and Aylward know it’s more than the spruced property, extra amenities, consistent menu and competitive hotel rates that keep guests coming back.
It’s about the staff. It’s about the Guv’Nor family.
Success and longevity in a competitive hospitality sector, possibly more than any other, depends not only on the services and amenities offered to guests, but on the staff delivering it and that’s not lost on the Guv’Nor’s owners.
“It’s really difficult to take credit for it, other than to say that we gave it some general direction from the beginning. It was the people who worked it for all those years that really created what it is,” says Aylward.
Not unlike any small business, a lot of staff members have joined the left the family over the past two and a half decades. But the Guv’Nor has been fortunate to retain certain key staff over the years, all of whom have been able to carry on the direction set out by Lawlor and Aylward and pass it along to the newcomers.
“These people, the Heathers of the world, they come in here and now it’s their place. They take ownership of it,” says Aylward.
He’s referring to Heather Smith, who’ll celebrate 20 years with the company this August. After spending the first six years in the kitchen, Smith brought her Harbour Breton brogue and sunny smile to the floor of the restaurant.
“I love my job, I love coming to work, and the people I work with, 99 per cent of the time, have been awesome,” Smith says. “I’ve got friends for life that I’ve made over the years.”
“Derrick and Brenda are more than good. I’ve always helped them with everything I can but they’re good to me too.”
The same goes for general manager Rita Neary, who’s responsible for much of the business’s day-to-day operations.
“They’ve let me do things that I needed to do. They’re not here a lot anymore, so they trust me to run the business and to make decisions, which is really good for me,” says Neary, who started on the front desk was promoted to the office eight years later.
“They’re like parents to me, honestly.”
Like a good parent, Aylward and Lawlor have set the expectations and provided staff with the guidance to meet them. Everybody gets a fair shake.
“We allow people to be their own thing. We allow people to either get a pat on the back or a kick in the arse. It’s their call,” Aylward says.
Over the years, most have opted for the former, and it has resulted in everyone together creating what the owners now view as living, breathing entity.
“Everybody works together and everybody does what needs to be done to take care of the guests and to take care of each other,” Lawlors “I’m talking about from housekeeping to maintenance to the front desk to the cooks to the servers to all of us.
“If something needs to be done or a guest needs something, whoever’s available to do it is going to do it because we’re all in it together.”
Adds Aylward, “our job now is to keep things on the straight and narrow because we have no intentions of going anywhere.”