Most weeks, JohnMartin’s Irish Pub & Restaurant in Coral Gables pours about 1,000 pints of beer for its patrons. By the time the Miracle Mile mainstay toasts its 25th birthday on April 6, it will have served more than 1.3 million brews, about as much gasoline as it would take to fill the tank of a Toyota Prius 13,655 times.
The suds business will get a boost Monday, when thousands converge on JohnMartin’s for its annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration and street festival, the biggest in town.
Owners John Clarke and Martin Lynch pride themselves on building and maintaining South Florida’s most authentic Irish pub. Everything in it — the deep-mahogany bar, the maple floorboards, the memorabilia on the walls — is from Ireland, including the owners, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s from Killinkere in County Cavan, northwest of Dublin.
They came to Miami to pursue their dreams, with Lynch working in sales at the Coral Gables Country Club and then as a waiter at Christie’s. Clarke was a chef at the Biltmore. With backing from from some fellow Irish investors, they spent $1.5 million turning a Greek restaurant and adjacent antiques store into a proper Irish pub.
JohnMartin’s has earned a loyal following since then; Lynch, who runs the front of the house while Clarke works the kitchen, estimates that 70 percent of their customers are regulars or repeat visitors.
One of them is author and Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, who for years has organized an unofficial Herald holiday party at the pub.
“When I’m in JohnMartin’s, I feel as though I’m in Ireland,” Barry said. “Sometimes I wake up the next morning and discover that I actually am in Ireland. That’s how good the beer is.”
The business hasn’t survived without struggles, however.
When JohnMartin’s opened, an old city ordinance prevented staff from selling drinks over the bar — patrons had to order from and be served at tables. Lynch successfully fought to change the law, which sparked the rebirth of downtown Coral Gables as a place to go at night.
Profits peaked in the mid-1990s, when three-martini lunches were the norm and before big chains like Starbucks and Houston’s (now Hillstone) moved to the neighborhood. JohnMartin’s annual gross is about 10 percent less than the $2.5 million to $3.5 million that it was averaging in that heyday, Lynch said.
Clarke and Lynch have made adjustments where needed: Staffing is down to 23 employees from about 35, and they have focused on the casual side of the hospitality business, preferring to sling hamburgers rather than steaks. They said they think there is stability in casual dining that will shield them from the big-money restaurants that surround JohnMartin’s.
Through it all, the two business partners have remained closest friends. Both married and with four kids, Clarke and Lynch spend their work days together and their little free time with their families, who get together for all major holidays.
That includes St. Patrick’s Day, when Lynch will be pouring Guinness from behind his Irish-made bar, Clarke will be dishing out shepherd’s pie from his Irish-run kitchen. (To be sure, South Florida has more than a handful of other beloved Irish pubs, some more authentic than others.)
The men spoke with Business Monday about their partnership and their preparations for this year’s celebration.
Q. How much beer and corned beef do you sell on St. Patrick’s Day?
A. Lynch: The most we ever did was 125 kegs. It’s usually pretty close to that.
Clarke: We’ll go through about 200 pounds of corned beef that day. But our biggest seller is actually shepherd’s pie. We’ll also make a lot, a lot of burgers. People say we have one of the best burgers in Miami.
Q. Lots of places sell green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. Not JohnMartin’s. Why?
A. Lynch: There is no green beer in Ireland. We are the most authentic Irish place in Miami when you think about it. We’re Irish-owned, Irish-operated. Lots of places have come and subsequently gone with Irish names and stuff like that, and they weren’t really Irish. I think the fact that we’ve been here for 25 years speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
There have been lots of changes in Miami over the years, but we’ve survived it all. It hasn’t been easy. When we came here, there was no type of casual Irish pub down here. If you went out in Coral Gables, it was for a fine-dining restaurant. At the time, there was a real void in places where you could have a beer and a plate of good food.
The perception of Irish bars back then were that they were dives. We’ve changed that. We’ve made a statement: This is what an Irish bar is. This is what an Irish bar should be.
Q. John, are you still in the kitchen most days?
A. Clarke: Not most days; every day.
Q. Has the menu changed much over the years?
A. Clarke: Basically not. We do our shepherd’s pie, our fish and chips, all that. We try to stick to the basics — burgers, Irish specialties — because those are the things that sell the most. But everything we do is from scratch. Our soups are fresh. Our sauces and dressings are homemade. We’re not a high-priced establishment. I think for the prices we charge here, the quality of food is very good.
Q. How have the two of you remained close over the years?
A. Lynch: We grew up a half-mile away from each other in Ireland. Our families were very close back in Ireland. Our mothers went to church together.
Clarke: About four people in our town went to church every day, and one of them was my mother, and one of them was Martin’s mother. Every day.
Lynch: So maybe that’s how we’ve lasted together 25 years.
Clarke: We have our own interests. Martin likes to play golf, and I like to work in the garden. We hang out all together on Christmas and Thanksgiving and stuff like that. We both have four kids. As you get older, and the kids get older, you tend to go in different directions. But we’re here together every day, this is ours together, so that keeps us close.
Q. Craft beer is enjoying a moment. Have you changed your beer list to grab that business?
A. Lynch: We’ve added craft beer in bottles only. But the thing is — I don’t know how to put this — craft beer guys don’t tend to be really big drinkers, if you will. We’re used to guys who will drink five or six of these [holds up a pint of Guinness], sometimes more! The craft beer people tend to have two or three beers, and they like to sit there and talk about it. Trends are trends, but for guys like us, it doesn’t really make sense to try to chase them. That doesn’t appeal to us.
Q. Any plans to open another JohnMartin’s?
A. Lynch: With the type of operation we have, it’s tough to do more than one place, really, because we’re here all the time. That’s who we are, that’s what JohnMartin’s is. It’s John and it’s Martin, basically, so when you try to open up another place, you spread yourself too thin, and it just isn’t the same.
Q. And no plans to sell anytime soon?
A. Lynch: No. We’re going to keep it for a while. [Laughs]
Q. What kind of bond have you formed with your regulars?
A. Lynch: We know them all. I know their faces, John knows their food order.
Clarke: A guy came in last night, he said his father was a fireman who used to come here all the time. His dad loved the place, so he wanted to come in to honor his father. He said his father would be so proud of him for making the journey, for coming to have a drink at JohnMartin’s.
Lynch: The other day, a guy came in who had been a customer for years, but then he moved out to Los Angeles. And he hates it out there. I asked him, Where do you go for a drink? What is your JohnMartin’s now? And he said, there is only one John Martin’s.
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