I was ruminating the other day about writing a piece on the galvanising effect of the landlord or landlady on a pub and the lamentable decline in these figureheads.
It was prompted by a night out in York where I went into three pubs and bars only to wait to be served whilst staff behind the bar finished texting or tweeting. No one seemingly was in charge.
I was trying to work out whether it was just me that had noticed that more and more pubs and bars were run by a corporate team rather than a singular personality that was immediately identifiable with the pub.
Inaction kicked in and I parked it for a while.
Then sad news filtered through this week of the death of Frank Cartin, one the most recognisable landlords for 30 years in York, which brought it all into sharp relief.
The real deal
I got to know Frank well over a number of years starting when I came to York as a student. And although the news of his passing was not unexpected as he had been very unwell, it still came as a jolt.
Even though Frank and his wife Diane retired some years ago, I doubt you’ll find someone in the York licensed trade who hasn’t heard of Frank Cartin or his reputation, such was the size of the footprint he left behind.
If you want a singular example of everything that a good landlord and landlady should be then look no further than Frank and Di.
So what made Frank Cartin stand out from the crowd? People reach for epithets such as “larger than life” or a “really one-off character” but if someone asked me to describe Frank in a single word it would be “authentic”.
He was totally comfortable in his own skin in the respect that he was completely free of pretence or vanity. It didn’t worry him whether you liked him or not but the remarkable paradox was that it was near impossible to find someone who had a bad word for him.
He inspired loyalty from those who worked for him. He had high standards and didn’t suffer mediocrity but you wouldn’t find many workers who didn’t thank him for making them better at what they did.
He was such an incredibly good landlord because he had that invaluable trait of a kind of innate empathy that enabled him to connect with people at all levels.
Ghosts and movie stars
Great landlords bring a hinterland to the job – a wealth of life experience. Frank was a raconteur. There were his stories about living with the assortment of ghosts in the pub and putting up with their little quirks as if they were annoying B&B guests.
Or the time when at his previous pub The White Horse on Bootham he entertained Charlton Heston for a lock in, after he had appeared in A Man For All Seasons at The Theatre Royal.
Imperceptibly over time under Frank and Di’s stewardship, The Snickleway became one of those true egalitarian pubs that was a cross-section of society. Barristers rubbed shoulders with brickies; students with seniors; musicians with market stall holders.
There was always that healthy mix of friends and strangers. You wanted other people to discover what we all knew.
When people did many became regulars. To a lot of us it was simply known as “Frank’s”.
Travel from miles
Such was its draw, three Norwegian women made an annual pilgrimage to York just to visit The Snickleway and always came bearing gifts. I still remember getting indigestion from the smoked elk.
There seemed to be something to suit most tastes whether it was the weekly quiz night, regular darts matches or the mellifluous tones of York Philharmonic Male Voice Choir that hung on the air on a Monday when they popped in after practice for a pint and an impromptu sing song – much to the amazement of visitors.
Last June there was a 66th birthday party in York for Frank and many people travelled from all over the UK to say congrats and maybe at the back of their minds given his illness, a final goodbye.
A landlord is in that most unique of positions to touch the lives of a widely diverse set of people. The very best leave a legacy of great memories on your timeline. If you knew Frank Cartin you were one of those lucky people.
Just feels right
Pubs are a social melting pot that attract people for all kinds of reasons, both tangible and otherwise. The best ones attract people from every section and strata of society who meet and socialise on an equal footing.
In a pub there isn’t a class system or a membership criteria and pubs defy the usual stereotypical pigeonholing that is applied to many other institutions.
Yes they can serve good beer and / or good food or be particularly architectural attractive but there’s something more – that visceral reaction where you know it just feels right and yet you can’t put your finger on why.
Whilst many pubs and clubs now experience transient trade as people now tend more often to visit several places on a night out, a good landlord or landlady invokes an additional sense of loyalty that can result in people feeling happy to stay in the one place they feel most valued.
For any PubCo marketing manager that wants a case study for taking a pub by the scruff of the neck and transforming it from mediocrity to a convivial community hub then look back at The Snickleway Inn (the Anglers Arms until 1994) when Frank and Di ran it from 1993 to 2009.
Look at any pub company website and you get a checklist of the typical traits you need to have to be a licensee. One PubCo talked about licensees selecting a pub to run that suits their personalities!
Great landlord, great friend
What I tend to find is that a good pub is a mirror reflection of an exceptional landlord. They lead they don’t follow.
They take people with them on the journey but carve out their own niche and thus attract new regulars and patrons.
Quite apart from general bonhomie, a good landlord who greets you with your name and knows your favourite tipple can add several thousand pounds to the bottom line of any pub.
What is lost on many people these days is that the skillset of a landlord rivals a CEO or senior diplomat. They’re a businessperson, figurehead; welcoming host; peace negotiator; confidante; social worker and a friend who’s also a constructive critic when you need it.
At least the good ones are – and Frank and Di were just that.