In 1966, aged 23, Federico Rodriguez stepped off the ferry from Spain knowing that back in Granada his mother and three younger siblings all depended on him. He had nothing but a small wooden suitcase, £3, and the name of a contact in Kent who could get him a job.
His contact found him work as a waiter at the prestigious Bromley Court Hotel in south London. Desperate not to stay a waiter for long, he saved every penny. In 1973, he bought a lease for £11,000 and opened The Majorca restaurant nearby.
Former customers flocked to sample his new wife Maria’s authentic Spanish cooking. But just a year later, disaster struck when Rodriguez was hospitalised with peritonitis. He was so ill he was forced to sell up and return to being a waiter.
“Those were black days,” he recalls. His flair for looking after customers was earning him huge tips, but when a new manager decided all tips would be pooled and shared equally, an enraged Rodriguez quit.
With one of Britain’s biggest shopping centres due to be built in Bromley, Rodriguez knew that contractors ranging from architects to electricians would flood into the area. But where would they stay?
The choices were the pricey Bromley Court Hotel or cheap local B&Bs. Rodriguez believed a family hotel could fill the gap, and already had his eye on a huge, derelict Victorian house on the busy London Road. He met the owners, Bromley Council, and after promising to restore it to its former glory and provide local jobs the building was his – he just had to find £80,000 to pay for it.
A much tougher meeting with his wife followed. She conceded that working as a waiter would never earn the family enough money and eventually agreed to sell the family home and move into the crumbling pile with her mother and their two daughters. A week after relocating, Rodriguez’s daughter Elena remembers a roofer shouting to his mate: “Oi Dave, guess what – there are people living in here!”
In the following months, Federico and a few handymen created a 12-bedroom hotel with bar and restaurant, mixing Victorian architecture with Spanish wrought-iron balustrades and terracotta tiling. He toiled on site by day, and in the evenings worked as a waiter to pay the bills.
The building threw everything at him, from dry rot to rust-ruined pipes, but he applied his motto that “every problem, except death, has a solution”. Less than a year later, in 1984, he was nailing up the new sign for Blyth Hotel when a car pulled up and a man called over, “Are you open?”
With work on the nearby shopping centre cranking up, customers started flooding in. “We were full to the brim from day one,” recalls Maria. Word spread about the characterful and clean hotel, and Federico’s takings rose to over £5,000 a week, 52 weeks a year. He added six more bedrooms over the next two years.
The family worked seven days a week from early in the morning until late at night. After ten years, he put the Blyth up for sale. A week later a buyer walked in and offered Federico, then 53, just over £1m for it.
Now 70, he splits his time between Britain and Spain. His advice to budding entrepreneurs? “Money is in the air, you just have to find a good way to catch it.”