The man who helped spearhead café culture in Cyprus is back near his old stomping ground but it has been an incredible journey he tells THEO PANAYIDES
If a Triad member in Hong Kong had been a better shot, Sean O’Neill wouldn’t be sitting in front of me now. (“It’s a misconception that people know how to fire a gun,” says the man himself with disarming – no pun intended – casualness.) If he hadn’t instinctively grabbed hold of a little boy who was running into the street outside a favela (slum) in Brazil, saving his life, Sean wouldn’t be welcoming diners to 48 Bistro, the new restaurant he runs on Makarios Avenue in Nicosia. Instead he’d still be in Brazil, probably face-down in a ditch, and a name on an Interpol list of the permanently missing.
For a restaurateur, he’s led quite a life. He’s sandy-haired and very trim, as befits a man who goes to the gym three times a week. “Between 30 and 50, I gained maybe two kilos,” he tells me – and he is indeed 50, having marked his half-century in April. (Is he where a 50-year-old should be in life? “It depends on the 50-year-old,” he replies airily, “and where he wants to be.”) He tends to smile more than laugh – but when he does laugh the eyes disappear, and the lips pull back to reveal very white teeth. He says he’s the listening type, his girlfriend being the one who likes to talk (“She’s brilliant!” he adds hastily) – but has no problem turning raconteur for an hour and a half, his Brazilian adventure bearing all the hallmarks of a party-piece he’s told before loads of times. But we’ll get to that later.
We meet in his flat, at 3pm – that being almost the only hour when a man in his position is free: he started work at 8 this morning, will go back around 6, and plans to stay at the Bistro till it shuts at 1am. This is fairly typical. “I work about 300 hours a month,” calculates Sean, and it’s been his life for as long as he can remember. One of his most vivid childhood memories is from a day just before he turned 14, as he sat in the kitchen peeling potatoes with his mother. “You know your 14th birthday’s coming up?” said his mum. I know, he replied, expecting a question about what he wanted for his birthday – and was staggered when she asked: “You don’t think it’s time you found a job?”. “Two weeks later I started work,” recalls Sean – three nights a week clearing tables in a bar, then weekends at the fruit market from 4am to midday at 50p an hour. “And I’ve never stopped.”
Work has always defined him. Sports were also important, in his youth: he played schoolboy football for Liverpool, and made the semi-finals of the ABA Under-16 schoolboy boxing championship. Sport was how he channelled his rage and aggression, growing up “in a three-bedroom council house in Liverpool with 11 children”. Five of the kids were his siblings, the rest his cousins, adopted after the death of their mother. Dad was an illiterate labourer who’d come over from Ireland to work on the roads; Mum had a job in a launderette, and could read and write – though the first time Sean read a book was when he did his ‘O’ Levels; before that, “the only thing in the house was the Daily Mirror, and it was usually the horse racing page”.
Of those 11 kids, he’s the only one who went to university (three years at Stirling, doing Politics and Economics). Indeed, it’s worth noting the human cost of growing up in such a rough environment: his eldest sister died last month, one of his brothers is in rehab for cocaine addiction; of the five adopted cousins – all of them younger than Sean – three have also died, all three having killed themselves after a lifetime of drink and drug problems. The family lived on a cul-de-sac, with all the kids playing outside in the street; from his gang of friends at the time, maybe three (including Sean himself) managed to escape and succeed. Twice that number ended up in prison.
Was it at least a happy home, despite all the hardship?
“It was tough at times, because my father drank. A lot. And – it was a hard upbringing.”
What happened when he drank?
“I mean, he was very violent,” replies Sean softly. “Very violent. But at that time, it was par for the course. I mean, most of my friends suffered the same. It wasn’t something you complained about”. Sean bore the brunt of his father’s wrath: “I was, I suppose, the strongest one in the family. And it was impossible to break me”. He recalls being knocked down at 15, then taunting his dad for more. “He hit me again. ‘Now hit me again!’ I wouldn’t bow to him.”
What does a boy like that do – a boy so determined, physically strong, streetwise and stubborn – when he grows into manhood? Becoming a narcotics cop in Hong Kong, which he did for three years after college, is an obvious answer; that’s where he won commendations for drug arrests – and also, of course, where that Triad member shot at him from across the street, and fortunately missed. Becoming a manager of trendy cafés catering to the rich and fashion-conscious is a less obvious answer – but that’s what he’s done for most of his professional life, in London from 2000-08 where he co-owned three café restaurants (the flagship being perhaps the Knightsbridge Café) and before that, from 1994 to 2000, in Cyprus where he ran the legendary Le Café in Nicosia, just down the road from his current venture.
Strange but true: Sean O’Neill, the hard-headed, hard-working Liverpool-Irish lad from a dirt-poor background, has spent the past 20 years hobnobbing with Cypriot yuppies and Saudi sheikhs with more money than sense. Customers in Knightsbridge (predominantly Arabs) would often book a table for a whole month, he recalls, paying £3,000 in advance; their table would be free from 6-9 every night – but they wouldn’t even bother turning up most nights, because they’d booked tables at a dozen other places and only decided where to go at the last minute. Customers in Nicosia were a bit more frugal – yet to sit at Le Café in the late 90s was to be at the centre of everything, surrounded by the people who mattered. More than any other place, it kick-started café culture, combining excellent service (his staff were “like soldiers”, and better-paid than most soldiers) with a cool, casual vibe.
Sean, too, prospered; that goes without saying. For one thing, 1999 was the year of the stock market in Cyprus – and, as manager of Le Café, he was surely well-placed to receive advice on when to invest and (more importantly) when to pull out before the bubble burst. (“I was fortunate,” he says modestly.) Later, in Knightsbridge, working with a world-champion pastry chef named Rik de Baere, he was sending cakes to Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, flunkeys filling taxis with cakes and flying them off on private jets to the Royal family. Did Sean himself succumb to the high life? “I think the most stupid thing I’ve ever done,” he replies with a wry grin, “I once mail-ordered a Porsche Cayenne TechArt Turbo, fully customised. I mean, fully loaded – 543 bhp, V8 engine. It was a monster!”. The car cost £150,000, and took six months to manufacture. He’d just been divorced, in 2005, and “you go through a phase where you lose yourself, you do stupid things. I guess that was the most stupid.”
Maybe so. Yet the most striking thing about his apartment now is how bare it is. There are no paintings on the walls, no real décor – just a small pile of books in a corner, including Alex Ferguson’s autobiography and Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy. After Brazil, he “made it simple,” he says. “With all that happened to me there, when I came back I realised that the simple things in life are the best. Freedom, the ability to speak and do as you like without fear of someone coming to kill you, or take it from you. It’s silly things now that make me happy. And I’m actually a really content guy now.”
Ah, Brazil. Where to begin? He has a son there, Mateus, who’ll be three in August; Mateus’ mother is a beachwear model. (Sean has two kids here as well, 14-year-old Alex and 12-year-old Anna; they live with his ex-wife Christina.) He started buying property in the mid-00s, flats by the ocean in a place called Fortaleza, in the north-east – and moved there himself in 2011, initially for a six-month extended holiday (his plan was to buy more property, then sell everything before the World Cup). While in Fortaleza, he started getting business ideas – a man so active could hardly sit around all day – first for a children’s entertainment park then, while waiting for the licences, for a failing, 240-seater restaurant in the city centre which he took over, refurbished and promptly turned into a roaring success.
“I had two contracts,” he recalls. One was with the landlord who’d rented him the property. The other was with a sergeant in the militia police, to whom he was paying protection money. Fortaleza, like most of Brazil, is incredibly violent: “I’ve seen many people killed in Brazil,” says Sean. “Walking along the road, banditos just take out their gun, shoot them in the head and take their money. There and then, in front of me… I’ve seen an off-duty policeman be approached by a bandito who has a gun, to rob him in the street, and he pretends – I was standing there watching! – to take out his wallet, took out a gun, shot him twice in the head”. Nonetheless, it was still a shock when the aforementioned sergeant came up to Sean in the restaurant one day, offered him 80,000 Reals – the place was worth half a million – and said “I’m buying the restaurant off you”.
Sean replied that it wasn’t for sale. “Three days later I’m in the restaurant. Lunchtime again, full of people. He comes, in his uniform, with two other uniformed men, puts a gun to the back of my head and he whispers in my ear: ‘Gringo, I will shoot you in the head and bury you in Beira Mar’. Beira Mar was the local beach. I turned around: ‘Go f*** yourself. I’m not selling it’. Now, that was a big mistake – but I guess it’s the Gaelic, Irish temper: ‘I won’t be bullied’. Which, again, was going back to being a child,” growing up tough and standing up to his father. “I refused to be bullied”.
The sergeant left again – but Sean found himself in serious trouble. A few days later, he was informed that the cop had taken out a contract on his life. He was now a marked man, and unless he left Brazil (which, for business reasons, he was loath to do) would surely find himself dead. He decided to disappear, and went into hiding in the favelas. An old man rented him a room: four by three metres, stiflingly hot, full of mosquitos. Sean wondered why the mattress was up on a stone platform – but no longer wondered when he heard scratching at night and saw a water rat, big as a cat, inches from his face, trying to climb up the platform.
One day, he heard voices outside – and saw the sergeant talking to the old man in the courtyard. The offensive gringo had been tracked down. “I froze,” he tells me. “I thought OK, any minute now he’s going to come through the door and shoot me. There’s no way out – there are two doors, and he’s in front of them. OK, I’m dead”. Sean squatted down, his back to the door, and resigned himself to his fate – but, when someone entered, it was the old man: he’d lied to the sergeant, and told him there was no gringo here. But why? It turned out his unlikely benefactor was the grandfather of that little boy – remember the boy? – whom Sean had saved from running out into the street, weeks before, outside that same favela! “And I thought: there is a God!”.
The rest of the story isn’t so inspirational. The bad guys won: Sean was forced to seek terms with a senior cop, and agreed to sell up and leave in exchange for his life. Yet something seems to have changed in Sean O’Neill as a result of this adventure. His life, as he says, is very simple now: his flat is 10 minutes from the Bistro, about the same from the gym, about the same from Christina and the kids. His world has shrunk to the dimensions of this safe little diamond – yet, inside, he’s bursting with purpose. After having grown rich and lazy for a while, in his 40s, “I have that raw energy back to achieve again”.
Sean is a positive person. Every period of his life – Hong Kong, Nicosia, London, even Fortaleza – seems to have been “an amazing experience”. He’s full of praise for his various collaborators. Erika Vasiliou, who founded Le Café, was “an incredible marketeer”. Athos Papaellinas, his partner in London, taught him more about business than he learned in his MBA. He’s also a meticulous person – the kind who remembers every date, every number. I can see why he relishes going to work, the planning, the nuts and bolts, the feel of a job well done. “For me, work comes naturally. I can understand it, and I’m comfortable with it. I’m not so comfortable with personal relationships – because they can be complicated, and you have to speak to your emotions and get involved”.
He seems pretty good at them, though, I point out, thinking of the various girlfriends he’s mentioned and the kids on two continents. Maybe it’s because he’s so “ruggedly handsome,” quips Sean – and laughs so hard that he actually claps his hands, and rocks in his chair.He stops, turning serious: “For me,” he says earnestly, “my happiness comes from seeing other people enjoy the things I’ve created”. Then goes off to do exactly that, at the Bistro.