In the far clutches of West London, on the residential side of a bridge that leads to a grey industrial estate, is a small cafe with a heavy blue door and barred windows. The place is called The Bridge, and the only reason you or I have heard of it is because it's where losers go to cry. Losers on TV show The Apprentice, that is. The normal customers might not have lost anything.
A group of Canadians have ventured out to West Acton to dine at The Bridge. They eat set breakfasts—two rashers of bacon, a sausage, one fried egg, beans or tomatoes, and tea or coffee—and recount awkward moments that have taken place within the cafe's whitewashed walls. They're among a number of The Apprentice super-fans eager to pay homage to the cult TV show, the contestants of which are the very antithesis—or at least, try to be—of a traditional greasy spoon. Their pink ties, neatly folded pocket squares, and formidably high heels look irregular amid plastic chairs and mugs of builders' tea.
We're on series 13 of The Apprentice, the reality TV show that pits 18 often hapless would-be entrepreneurs against one another. The goal is to impress Lord Sugar and his fellow judges Karren Brady and Claude Littner—and, importantly, to avoid being "fired." At stake? A wedge of dosh and some sort of business partnership with the self-made millionaire.
One of the programme's major features is group tasks. For example, in the first episode of the current series, participants were asked to create and sell burgers. All the more amusing then when the losing team (the men, it was a classic battle of the genders), had to slump on seats at The Bridge cafe, observing how genuinely scalable food is prepared and sold. The Bridge, owned by brothers Frank and Jerry Marcangelo, has been running for 55 years, which is an exceedingly long time in hospitality. For the last ten years, the cafe has been used as a place of reflection and fiery debate (well, arguing) for the team Lord Sugar deems a failure. It was chosen by producers because it's round the corner from where the show is filmed.
"I don't really watch it," Frank tells me. "I see bits of it. We were asked to do it as we're close to the studios. They [the producers] can be here in minutes. There used to be more of them [studios] here. It's quite entertaining listening to them all talk, it can get pretty heated, but I don't pay all that much attention. I just let them get on with it. We're not open when they come in for shoots. They come in after lunch, so it doesn't affect trade."
I'm not the first to ask whether The Apprentice contestants actually eat anything. Apparently the answer is no, no they do not.
"None of them eat anything really. They have tea and coffee, maybe a bit of cake. But none of them have bacon sandwiches or anything like that. They just get on with the 'discussions,'" Frank adds.
He tells me that it's fun to be a part of the show, and welcomes fans who might not otherwise set foot in The Bridge. But, interestingly, the alliance with the BBC hit doesn't do all that much for the tills.
"We used to be a lot busier—there were more businesses around here," Frank says. "We used to get all the Murphy boys in. It's not bad or anything, but in the '60s and '70s we sold more breakfasts and everything. There were just more people about."
It's neither particularly busy nor particularly quiet when I visit on Thursday lunch time. A few builders come and go, a large man with spectacles reads a paper and has a Big Boy Breakfast (two of everything, three bits of bacon), and a couple of Irish regulars talk to Frank. They've been coming since the place opened. When it did, Frank was just 16. He comes from a family of cafe owners. His grandfather came to the UK from Italy in 1900.
"My dad bought me and Jerry the cafe. I was born round the corner. My grandfather ran cafes, as did my dad. So it's a family thing. It's all we know. We do cooked breakfasts, sandwiches, that sort of thing. Jacket potatoes, you know. I'm getting a bit old now. I'm 71. But we go along."
Rita brings me my lunch: a tidy plate of ham, egg, and chips, which is a massively underrated dish by all accounts, I think. The ham is pleasant, the egg a little anaemic, but tastes quite good, and the chips are of the thick, very golden, very delicious variety. The sort you get in country pubs. My mug of tea is scorching hot—if you know, you know.
Frank has to dash off for a hospital check-up (he has a metal knee cap) and lunch time at the cafe is winding down. One of the Irish customers asks not to be named, but tells me that he's 70 and has been visiting The Bridge since it opened.
"I worked around here for many years, so came every day," he says. "Now it's habit. I like it. The food is good, right, and everyone is good here. I don't watch The Apprentice. I don't really know what it is."