Last November, I submitted this article for my first ever paying writing gig. Not only have I still not gotten paid, but I’m pretty certain no one ever published it. I worked hard on the piece and I believe it deserves to see light of day… especially since the folks at McGillin’s are incredible folks and the place is an incredible place. Enjoy:
It’s no secret that the American economy is struggling and that, even in times of great economic success, it’s extremely difficult to maintain a small business in America. Major corporations and chains appear to almost take pride in driving the “mom and pop” businesses of past generations out of town.
However, some local businesses figure out the secret recipe to staying strong through the good times and bad. Some even become landmarks and form their own legends and lore. One of these local businesses is Philadelphia’s oldest pub, McGillin’s Olde Ale House, a local tavern that boasts opening in 1860 (to put this in perspective, this is the same year that Abraham Lincoln took office as the President).
In 1860, William McGillin founded the public house, then known as The Bell in Hand. The Bell in Hand was much smaller in those days, but rested at nearly the same Drury Street location as the current taproom does. The Bell in Hand was immediately well liked by the blue-collar laborers of the Philadelphia neighborhood. Even in its early days, The Bell in Hand was typically referred to simply as McGillin’s by those who frequented the pub.
While William was well loved by the clientele, it was his wife, Catherine, who took McGillin’s to the next level. In 1901, William, then known as “Pa” or “Pop” by the regulars, passed away, leaving McGillin’s to Catherine “Ma” McGillin. Ma was tough, well respected, and one of the very few female pub owners in the city. She renamed the pub McGillin’s in her late husband’s honor.
“It was Ma who gave the bar it’s current look, unifying the three structures. Ma was able to successfully steer the Ale House through the turbulent years of WWI and Prohibition,” explains Chris Mullins, Jr., son of the current owners Mary Ellen Spaniak Mullins and Chris Mullins.
Fast forward to 1937, the thriving alehouse continued to stay strong despite Ma’s death at age 90. Ma was dedicated to the pub until the day she died and Ma and Pa’s daughter, Mercedes McGillin Hooper, took over upon her death. She continued to run the family business until she decided to sell the bar to a pair of experienced barkeeps who were dedicated to continuing the grand tradition of McGillin’s. This 1958 sale of the pub is where the family of the current owners entered the story.
Chris explains, “My family has owned McGillin’s since 1958 when my grandfather and great uncle purchased the bar from Mercedes McGillin Hooper, the daughter of William and Catherine McGillin, the founders. My parents purchased the bar in 1993, and I have been on board since 2006.”
In the past few years, Chris has begun to take the reins at McGillin’s and, with his parents, continues the great McGillin’s tradition. For him, it’s been a smooth transition, “Hospitality is in my blood, both sides of my family have always been in the business. I am at least the fourth generation publican on my mother’s side; my father’s side is filled with chefs. It was a good bet upon my birth I would be serving the public.”
Former employee and current fan of the pub, Christopher Irons, explains that the entire family knows hospitality better than anyone he’s known, “[The Mullins family are] extremely hard working, fun loving, caring individuals whom it was an absolute privilege to work for. Their work ethic as a family is beyond superlative and they are class acts to work for. They are constantly focused on pleasing every single guest that walks through the door and they take pride in people having a good time at their bar.”
The high praise doesn’t end there, Irons adds, “They are extremely generous to work for and the staff that finds there way there are every bit as lucky to find the place as the customers are… Leaving McGillin’s was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made. I had to have a couple of martinis before I handed my notice in. I will carry fond memories of McGillin’s for the rest of my life.”
From Pa and Ma through to Chris’s parents and now, Chris, the proprietors of McGillin’s have prided themselves not only on their hospitality, but also staying on top of the trends. Technology has always played a vital role in the pub’s secret recipe that keeps a small business from fading into obscurity.
Chris explains that technology was important from the beginning, “McGillin’s has always strived to stay ahead of the times. In fact, Pop died while cleaning up the debris left by workmen who had just installed one of the first central heating units in a private business in the city.”
In addition to having one of the city’s first central heating units, McGillin’s was air conditioned before most establishments were. Today, Chris and his family are very focused on continuing the trend of being ahead of the curve, “We use technology every day here – whether it is our Hi Def TVs and customized operating system; our POS system with computers at each station in our kitchen; or, of course, social media which has become our de facto means to market ourselves and all that we do here.”
Social media, as Chris explains, is one of the most essential technological waves for businesses like McGillin’s to be aware of and involved with. Social media drives much of what the younger generations know about businesses, as well as the decisions they make in regards to purchases. For example, when deciding where to go out to dinner a local college kid may hop on his Facebook feed to find out what bar or restaurant has a good special that night.
Chris is well aware of this, “We consider ourselves a leader in [using social media]. We realize that our customers and future customers are relying on smart phones and social media as exclusive means to communicate and we want to be right in the middle of this communication. When we discover a new application, we jump on it, learn it, practice it and hopefully find success in it – to drive customers through our doors. “
Marketing and communicating through social media also offers some specific benefits for businesses like McGillin’s. Chris explains, “We are now able to get immediate feedback when we do something right, or maybe we slipped up and all wasn’t perfect with a customers experience. I do love it though when we will have a tweet or two about a great song on the jukebox and a complaint about that same song from another Twitter account! There is nothing I can do to change the music!”
Another trend that pubs in America, especially in a city known for being one of America’s best beer-drinking cities, is craft beer. Like so much of McGillin’s history, craft beer and local brewing was a focus of the pub before many of its competitors. Chris notes, “When my parents took over in the ’90’s, those were dark years in the beer business. I don’t even think there was the term craft beer yet. But my father was (actually still is!) a visionary – he recognized the potential to embrace locally produced craft beer. It was a way to differentiate McGillin’s and embrace our heritage, as Pop used to age his beer in the basement. Back in 1993, he started a long lasting and strong partnership with Carol and Ed Stoudt, from Stoudt’s Brewery. This lasting friendship has been the core of our beer selling model. Sell great beer, from within a 90 mile radius we know this beer will be fresh, made from scratch with care and will be much more environmentally friendly due to shorter trucking miles. To maintain freshness and to be more green as there is no waste with draft, most of our beer is on draft.”
With McGillin’s embracing of things like social media and craft beer, it’s not a surprise that McGillin’s is embraced by the vibrant young beer drinkers of Philadelphia. Former Drexel student and current resident of Cambridge, Massachussetts, Timothy Ericson, frequented McGillin’s during his years at Drexel University. Timothy considers McGillin’s one of his favorite bars in Philadelphia.
“I love how McGillin’s is an historic pub, but you don’t feel historic by going there,” Timothy explains. “No matter what day of the week it is, there is something going on at McGillin’s. The awesome vibe combined with the cheap food made it a great place to bring any type of friend (the foodies, the beer snobs, the cheap, etc.).”
To young patrons like Timothy, McGillin’s offers something different from the other pubs in town, “I also love how it’s not a pub you can just stumble upon. It is down a small side street surrounded by big, modern buildings, but when you walk inside you feel like you are home. I think what makes McGillin’s unique is that it’s the type of place that can attract people from all different walks of life and everyone always has a good time.”
In order to stay in business for 152 years, not only is an understanding of technology, trends, and what’s on the cutting edge needed, but also a willingness to jump on those trends. A business cannot fear change in order to find that secret recipe for success. A business must embrace their history while becoming a trendsetter. And, with its 152 year track record, McGillin’s Olde Ale House is the type of business that has found that recipe. Slainte!