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The magnificent seven who ran the first Soho House

This team had so much fun at Soho House 40 Greek Street in the 1990s that they’ve stuck around. As it reopens with more space,  we ask them what it was like in the beginning

The manager: Veronique Fumey, now learning and development manager

I first started at Cafe Boheme, and joined Soho House as evening manager. The members loved my strong French accent and I became the clown of the party. But I wasn’t into the media world and had no idea who anyone was; I didn’t even click when Mel Gibson came in. I think that’s what made Soho House, we didn’t treat anyone differently.

Very quickly, everybody wanted to come. We had to know all the members because they used to lend the cards to other people. Nick worked really hard. He’d be on reception every lunchtime, taking people’s coats, taking them to the tables. He knew all the names.

Our most popular dish was mashed potato with haddock and poached egg on the top. Then it was risotto, Caesar salad, burgers, fishcakes. I closed the club every Tuesday to Saturday, working 5pm to 5am, then we used to go out partying afterwards. There wasn’t this lifestyle there is now where you have to be healthy and get your sleep.

The waiter: Pierre Dourneau, now director of North America

Soho House 40 Greek Street is a very special building to all of us. It was really the start of something. A few months ago when the refurbishment works were still going on I walked the building with Nick and we both had tears in our eyes.

It was Veronique who hired me as a waiter after I answered a newspaper ad. I’d worked summers in good restaurants in France so I knew how to carry three plates, how to take an order, all that. I stayed on because I loved the structure, the family, the camaraderie. For us it felt like a place where you go and see your mates and get paid. We would go out clubbing but we were always back to work on Monday, we never called in sick.

At first I thought that [then GM] Podge was the owner and Nick was the maître d’. Everyone treated him like a normal person. Once when he came in I started putting a little plate under the sugar bowl for him and Veronique told me, “No, do it the normal way”. Now when he comes to America that’s what I tell the guys: do it like we usually do.

The receptionist: Vanessa Xuereb, now member relations director

Soho House is a really special place to work and it was especially great for me in the beginning, because I’d lost a lot of confidence after being in a car accident. On my first shift, I stood up all night doing the guest list because I was terrified of answering the phones. I was covering for a friend while she went on a date and the girls were like, “Don’t you want to sit down?” and I was like, “No I’m fine”. After about a month of that Podge said come on, you’re answering the phone. The first person who called was Nick, and I managed to cut him off three times! I’d been to drama school and initially I still wanted to do acting. But I fell in love with the family feel and how people were.

I’ve opened most of the Houses so I feel each one has a little piece of me, but 40 Greek Street is a little bit different. When I first went to see the refurbishment I was worried it might not be the same, but then I thought, “No, OK, it’s going to be amazing”. And once we open I just trust in the whole magic of what we do. It’s the family connection.

The cloakroom attendant: Joe Eva, now general manager, Soho House Mumbai

Veronique interviewed me in the yellow room. I’d just come back from travelling in Argentina and had this long, straggly hair but they gave me a job in the cloakroom. After a few days one of the receptionists left suddenly so I filled in. I’d never imagined myself working as a receptionist at a private members’ club, but having a coffee and croissant on a desk in the morning was a big draw for me at the time! A lot of the members and guests were very recognisable: it’d be John Malkovich one day, Isabella Rossellini the next.

I’m expecting to be a bit emotional when the House reopens, because it’s where it all began. I love that Nick has listened to what the members want and is putting certain parts back as they were. Vanessa and I have been precious about things like where the table numbers go. The House means so much to us as a team, we love it and we’re excited by it.

The waitress: Mandy Kean, now director of cinema, Europe

 What struck me about it, after working in restaurants where you’d see new people all the time, was how great it was building relationships with members and getting to know them.  I always enjoyed it when the magician Fay Presto came in. Her favourite table was 209 or 204 and she used to order Heinz baked beans on toast, which wasn’t on the menu, so we had to get the beans specially. She would do this trick at reception where she would write on a card and flick it on to the ceiling so if you ever looked up, you would see cards there.

Once Woody Harrelson and Bill Murray were having a drink in the red drawing room and this odd guy just bounded in there and started spouting poetry at them. After a while it started to get heated, Woody got irate and Bill took a fire extinguisher off the wall, shouted “Ghostbusters!” and sprayed it all over him. 

I could walk around that place with my eyes closed and I loved it for that. But it needed to be refreshed and given new life, and the reopening is going to be really exciting.

The bartender: Marcus Barwell, managing director, Soho House design

I started working as a bartender in the Circle Bar in 1998. The popular cocktails were pretty basic by today’s standards, mostly sea breezes and caipirinhas, and I’m not sure our current bar teams would be impressed. There wasn’t much space behind the bar and we didn’t even have a working fridge – but there was an incredible team working back then and a real sense of family that I think has remained.

It was amazing to have the chance to oversee the reimagining of 40 Greek Street, and to push the design forward. The look will be much more contemporary, with cleaner lines, but at the same time we were conscious of trying to retain everything that made it so special to the members. The Circle Bar will return, of course, and you can still feel the warmth of the old Georgian spaces. Hopefully we’ve got the balance right.

The boss: Nick Jones, CEO

I found the original opening in 1995 pretty nervewracking. There was only a small door and it felt chaotic at first. We had a great team though, and we had fun. We were the new kids on the block and people give you a lot of leeway when you’re that.

The building lasted 20 years and it got some battering. By the time it closed it was on its last leg, so it needed to change. It’s going to be bigger but still with lots of little rooms, so you’ll never quite know which room you’re meeting someone in. We’ll have more seats and new places to go, as well as the yellow and blue dining rooms and the Circle Bar.

What will never change is the can-do service. The big success of Soho is the fantastic family who have been here all the way and work incredibly hard to do their bit. It’s lovely to have them all back for the reopening party. Of course, I’m nervous too: so many people feel attached to the House that the challenge has been to evolve it without compromising its heritage. The good news is that everyone I’ve shown round who used to work there smiles.

Main image: Andrew Whitton. Old snapshots reproduced courtesy of the team

Interviews by Emma Bartley

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