“What a long, strange trip it’s been” could not be a better description for Mark Francis Grohol’s evolution from who he was when he arrived in Key West more than 20 years ago to where he is today.
Locals and returning tourists might know him better as Grubby, the gregarious bartender at the Galleon Resort and Marina’s popular oceanside Tiki Bar, but when he got to town in June 1996, he had never worked behind a bar.
“A friend of mine, Sarah, got a job teaching elementary school in Key West, so I helped her move from Pittsburgh,” he says. “We drove a 1986 Volkswagen Jetta in the middle of summer with no air conditioning. We hit Miami and missed the turnpike during rush hour.
“Finally, we hit that 18-mile stretch through the mangroves with nothing but shrimp shacks and dirt roads, and I knew we had hit the end of the line.”
He celebrates 20 years living in Cayo Hueso this month.
As far as the nickname goes, Grubby is not the original Grubby. He’s actually Grubby Junior.
“My father is the original Grubby,” he says. “They were poor and he always was this kid that wore the same dirty (grubby) clothes. Growing up I was ‘Grubby Boy’.”
Originally from Altoona, Pa., Grubby attended Pennsylvania State University, studying professional golf management. He spent summers in Galveston, Texas, and worked at a golf course in Pittsburgh cutting grass and “selling clippings.”
“I came with just $700 on me,” he says about coming to Key West. “I sold my Subaru and spent a week digging a ditch for my dad by the side of our garage for travel money. Sarah let me sleep on her couch for $300 a month.
“I hit Duval Street every night when I first got here, so that $700 was gone immediately.”
Grubby’s first job was selling cars at Duncan Ford on commission, which didn’t work out so well. “My last day I sold two cars to walk-ins, but was fired,” he laughs.
His second job was at the Hyatt as an OPC, an Office Premise Canvasser. “I made $50 for every couple I could get to come in and listen to a presentation,” he says, adding, “In four weeks, I made $50.”
Finally, he went to work at the Hog’s Breath Saloon, running the parking lot. He made $10 an hour and worked from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“I got a shift meal and six draft beers a day — an ideal starter job for a Key West transient,” he says. “I made $120 cash a day for helping people park, plus a meal, plus got drunk. When they asked me, ‘Will you be here tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I’ll be here at 9 a.m.’”
He worked his way behind the bar, starting off bar backing. Besides Hog’s Breath, he has also worked at the defunct Rum Runners, Schooner Wharf, the Inn and at Bagatelle (from 2001 until 2008).
“Up until six months ago I was working at least three jobs at the same time, at the Green Parrot, the Porch and the Galleon Tiki Bar. I finally asked my wife if I could just go down to one, and she said yes.”
He met his wife Val at Bagatelle. She was the new girl from Philly and he was asked to train her.
“I asked her out for months, but she kept declining … Finally, she agreed to a date so we went to Outback Steakhouse and a movie.”
Hurricane Dennis in 2005 proved to be their matchmaker. The storm ripped the roof off of Val’s apartment, and she moved into Grubby’s bachelor pad across from Finnegan’s Wake. Together ever since, they were married in 2012.
The Galleon Tiki Bar overlooks the picturesque Gulf of Mexico where Front Street meets the harbor, across the street from the A&B Lobster House, “where the boardwalk ends and the sunsets begin.”
There’s a 90-slip marina, a private beach and year-round outdoor pool. There are jet-ski and scooter rentals, flats and deep-sea fishing charters.
Grubby works behind the bar from 4 -10 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays and from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. Fridays. The bar is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Sunday, when it opens at noon.
“When I started here, the Tiki Bar was a very small octagonal bar with termites and hanging, exposed wires,” Grubby says. “It was known as the Leaky Tiki.” It recently went through a major overhaul and is now one of the most sought-after hangouts for locals on the island, with live music every night and two happy hours daily (except Sunday mornings): 10 a.m. to noon Monday-Saturday and 4-7 p.m. seven nights a week. The Grille offers breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6 a.m. to 10 p. m.
Grubby still hits the links at the Key West Golf Club on Stock Island, likes getting out on the water with friends “and enjoys some Dion’s Chicken” whenever he can. When he’s not working, you might find him cutting the rug at the Green Parrot or singing some karaoke at Bobby’s Monkey Bar (his stage name is Blueberry).
“I love living in Key West,” he confides. “But I don’t like working. Period. If you have to work somewhere, though, there couldn’t be a better place than here.”
Our interview drew to an end, and as I sat at the Galleon Tiki Bar with a friend watching the sun drop down over the horizon, we saw our first green flash.
I suggest you try to do the same. ¦