“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 first arrived in Key West 20 years ago to where he’s ended up 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 arrived in 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. 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 long 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.” Grubby is celebrating 20 years living in Cayo Hueso this month.
As far as the nickname goes, Grubby is not the original Grubby. He’s actually Grubby Jr. “My father is the original Grubby. 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, before moving down to Key West, and worked at a golf course in Pittsburgh cutting grass and “selling clippings.”
“I came with just $700 on me,” he said. “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. But 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. “My 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. 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, worked from 10 a.m. till 10 p.m. He got a shift meal and six draft beers a day, which was an ideal starter job for a Key West transient. “So, 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.’”
Since then, Grubby worked his way behind the bar, starting off barbacking. Besides Hog’s Breath, he has also worked at the defunct Rum Runners, Schooner Wharf, the Inn and at Bagatelle, where he worked 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. Finally, I asked my wife if I could just go down to one and she said yes.”
He met his wife, Val, while working at Bagatelle. She was the new girl from Philly whom he was asked to train. “I asked her out for months, but she kept declining and declining. Finally she agreed to a date so we went to Outback Steakhouse and then to see ‘Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.’” But it was actually Hurricane Dennis in 2005 that proved to be their matchmaker. “Hurricane Dennis ripped the roof off of her apartment, and I had a great bachelor pad across from Finnegan’s Wake, so we moved in together,” and have been 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, and they host a variety of water activities for their guests, including a private beach and year-round outdoor pool. They also offer jet-ski rentals, flats and deep sea fishing charters, and scooter rentals. Grubby is behind the bar from 4-10 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays. The bar is open from 10 a.m. till 10 p.m. every day of the week, except Sundays, when it opens at noon. “When I started here, the Tiki Bar was a very small octagonal bar with termites and hanging, exposed wires. It was known as the leaky Tiki,” he said. It recently went through a major overhaul, and is now one of the most sought after evening hangouts for locals on the island, featuring live music every night, and two happy hours daily (except Sunday mornings): 10 a.m. till noon Monday through Saturday, and again from 4-7 p.m. seven nights a week. The Grille offers breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6 a.m. until 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 he might be 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,” Grubby confides. “But I don’t like working, period! But if you have to work somewhere, there couldn’t be a better place than here.”
And as this interview drew to an end, and I sat at the Galleon Tiki Bar with a friend watching the sun creep down over the horizon we saw our first Green Flash.
I suggest you try to do the same. ¦