Having a Firkin good time

Simply put, the Firkin chain of pubs has come to dominate the pub market in Toronto. There are 36 now standing or being built, which means a pretty big chunk of the GTA has its own neighbourhood Firkin — a uniquely Toronto phenomenon in this country.

The Toronto Star
January 2, 2002

Having a Firkin good time
Local pub chain builds success on warm welcome and British grub
Jon Filson

I have never been to England, so I have no idea what a truly authentic English pub is like. But a genuine Toronto pub? Easy. It feels like a Firkin.

Simply put, the Firkin chain of pubs has come to dominate the pub market in Toronto. There are 36 now standing or being built, which means a pretty big chunk of the GTA has its own neighbourhood Firkin — a uniquely Toronto phenomenon in this country.

Calgary doesn't have Firkins all over the place. Montreal? Nope, not there. In Halifax you'll get a big uh-uh. There are a couple of Firkins in Vancouver, where the chain has expanded to, but that's it.

Love or hate the Markham-based chain, the Firkins are ours. So we might as well love them.

"In the last six years, the growth has been rather significant," says Larry Isaacs, the chain's marketing director.

With their rapid growth in the past decade, the Firkin pubs are among the most successful food franchises in Southern Ontario. The company plans to add two or three in the GTA each year.

Walking into a Firkin feels like hugging your favourite grandparent. At night, impossible-to-hate music like Tom Petty, soft-core AC/DC, Steve Perry and other classics dominate the sound system. They're loud enough to be heard, but not so loud you can't talk. Everything that isn't a beer or a human being is made from red velvet, glossy brass, black trim or dark wood. Signs that say "Scotch," "Ale" and "Whiskey" are up everywhere, in case you forgot why you came in. There is no one identifiable smell, but a mixture of smoke, alcohol, must and grease. No one shows off.

If you haven't noticed one in your ‘hood, you must be one of the rare breed who pays attention while driving. But rest assured, there’s one nearby, be it the Drake and Firkin, the Frigate and Firkin, the Phoenix and Firkin, or the Friar and Firkin. Issacs says the names are meant to reflect the community. Kinda makes you wonder who hangs out at the Boar and Firkin.The one that begat them all is The
Fox and Firkin at 51 Eglinton Ave., opened in 1987 by Stanley Adelson and Ian Fisher, now president and CEO, respectively, of the Firkin Group of Pubs (http://www.firkinpubs.com).

Isaacs suspects they got the idea from the similar Firkin chain of pubs operating in England, but the company is independent.

Clearly, the Firkin philosophy has a few things figured out:

1) Rather than the homogenized McDonald's franchise look, each Firkin is adapted to its setting and has individual ownership. There isn't a set number of booths or stools, just what would best fit each spot. "Although the design would be different, the décor would be the same," Isaacs says. That means while there's lots of black and red inside, The Wolf and Firkin on Elm St. has a piano bar, Etobicoke's Squire and Firkin on Bloor St. W. hypes a breakfast buffet on the weekends, and the Quail and Firkin in Rosedale holds Golden Tee competitions for video golf game addicts. To each his own.

2) If you've got a good thing going, don't screw it up. Just this fall, the Fox and Firkin was renovated. The chain took down the rustic façade and worked the joint over for a couple of months. When it was done, everything looked exactly the same, "just cleaner and fresher," says Issacs. "We try and maintain the look. You don't want to lose your identity."

3) Not every decision has to be made at the top. Each Firkin has a set menu featuring such pub staples as shepherd's pie, liver and onions, bangers and mash. But beyond pub grub, each Firkin devises daily specials, which can range from lobster to beef-barley soup to peameal bacon burgers to Thai salads. Again, what's on the specials board is tuned to the neighbourhood.

Still, there are persistent food themes. Firkin food is typically hearty or heavy, depending on what you order, and there's always lots of it. Chances are your meal will be a little overcooked. No matter if you order off the board or the menu, a meal shouldn't run you more than $15. Of course, your beer tab might go just a tad higher. There may be 15 beers on tap at each Firkin, maybe not your special brand, but one close enough so you don't have to think very hard when the bartender comes around.

Isaacs says the target market is 25- to 50-year-olds, but that's marketing talk. The dominant crowd at the Fox and Firkin, however, especially at night, is made up of single men. It's about an 80-20 ratio in favour of men. If reasonable men who want to meet women should join yoga classes — because that's where the women are — then reasonable women who want to meet men should head to the Firkins.

Walk into a Firkin, any Firkin, and there's at least four guys sipping beer and smoking cigarettes at the bar. Some have lines of quiet desperation etched in their faces, drink quietly, munch a steak sandwich or a chicken club, and are attached to the bar as if it was built around them.

Others, who have eschewed quiet desperation for the louder kind, hold court, waving a chomped french fry, spewing harmless madness on Michel's iron law of oligarchy, divorce and the middle-aged man, or on the Maple Leafs' playoff chances.

The rest play NTN trivia or crowd around the Golden Tee video game or quietly sip their beers, acting as if they want to be alone.

If it sounds like a clichéd pub description, that's exactly the idea.

"The concept has a lot of longevity to it," Isaacs says.

"The British pub theme has a real comfort level with people. It's something that's in-between of everything. It's not going to fast food, it's not going to fine dining. It's nice and easy and in the middle."

Ah, but what about the finer pubs in town? The Rebel House on Yonge St. has an outstanding menu of deer sausage and mussels and so on.

Smokeless Joe's on John St. has an almost infinite choice of beers. But you go there for the gimmick as much as anything.

You go to a Firkin to hang out without pretension. It's the ultimate compromise spot, playing the perfect-second-choice Betty to the Veronica of classy joints in town.

The Firkins are not for everyone: if you always wear black or shop at Holt Renfrew instead of Zellers, you might not like them.

Good people work at them, chatty gals like Jennifer, the bartender at the Fox, Lisa at the Quail and Anita at the Squire.

Everyone's on a strict first-name basis. Drinks get poured without having to be ordered — they're just assumed.

Feeling bored? Want to talk? Ask the guy beside you what he thinks of Vince Carter, the Liberals, Bach's "Toccata and Fugue."

Want to argue? Disagree with whatever he says. Want to eat your tuna melt in peace? That's allowed, too.

These places don't get celebrated, because they are not trying to be anything other than a place where you can just be.

There's little extreme to note about them except their consistent popularity everywhere they pop up.

There is no status or lack thereof at a Firkin. Philosopher John Mills, who wrote that people can do whatever they want as long as they're not hurting anyone else, probably had a beer in one, way back when. That's the beauty, the charm of a Firkin.

Last point to make: Before I started hanging out at a Firkin, I went to another bar in my area for a couple of months.

There, they always called me "sir." Don't get me wrong, that's real nice, I'm not complaining. But at the Firkin, from my first visit, they've called me "Jon."

Jon Filson can be found at the Fox and Firkin almost every Tuesday night.


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