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Fergie: Philly’s Favorite Publican

Fergie: Philly’s Favorite Publican

Of all the flattering things Philly’s well-regulated militia of brew geeks, bartenders, pint-pourers-turned-proprietors and plain old over-drinkers tend to share about Fergus Carey, this is by far the most common. Local legend dictates that the man known to the beer-drinking universe as Fergie possesses supernatural powers in the moniker department. And within an ADD-stricken populace predisposed to rubbish-binning information one nanosecond after it’s presented, it’s something that earns more than a little attention.

“He always remembers your name.”

“I try,” says the happily hirsute 49-year-old Irishman, in an airy brogue whose corners are only slightly rounded from 25 years in the States. “I must have some natural ability. But I read How to Win Friends and Influence People, and one of the big things is that a person’s name is the most important word in the language. It’s just something I have, I guess.”

 

His business partners, pals and protégés are quicker to elaborate on the humble publican’s people-person power. “He’s incredible at remembering peoples’ names, what they drink and a little bit about them,” says Tom Peters, Carey’s partner in four Philly bars. “He susses out things, asks people questions about themselves. I’ve witnessed him talking to somebody once, then running into them again and being like, ‘How’s your sailboat?’ He’s unnaturally good at it.”

“He met my freshman roommate from college once when we lived together,” says restaurant consultant Suzanne O’Brien, a close friend and former roommate of Carey’s. “Six or seven years passed, and in an airport in Massachusetts, he walks by her and says, ‘Hi, Jane.’” “The remembering names thing — he has some tricks that help, but I’m not telling you them,” says Jose Pistola’s co-owner Casey Parker, who worked for Carey for eight years at his flagship Fergie’s Pub near 12th and Sansom.

Name-conjuring tactics stowed up his barkeep’s sleeve or not, the skill precedes Carey — and people remember him for it. “That’s a tool,” says O’Brien. “That is like being the mayor. We laugh and call him the unofficial mayor of Philadelphia.”

While Michael Nutter has no need to feel threatened by Carey’s local notoriety, he’ll never be able to match the repute he carries in the bar and restaurant community. But how did this son of Dublin even end up here, and what has made him so successful? Hintlessly remembering that your neighbor’s dog walker’s sister’s son is named Mathias with one T is impressive, sure. But Carey’s relied on much more than just his steel-trap knack to nurture Philly’s beer scene into the high-grav powerhouse it is today.

“He brings joy with him,” says O’Brien. “He just loves people and he’s a phenomenal host. What he’s great at doing is conjuring a party. He gets the right people in the room at the same time.”

It might come as a surprise that someone with such innate master-of-ceremonies chops, who’s as well-known for quoting Yeats or Joyce from memory as he is for showing up to work in a proper kilt, got his professional start the same way many of us did: in fast food. “There wasn’t a lot going on in Ireland in the early ‘80s,” says Carey. “Employment was dreadful. But I found a job working at a place called Burgerland.” Spending five years moving up the ranks of the Irish chain, Carey recalls “getting paid crap,” but he banked plenty of knowledge from the experience. “It might’ve been just a burger joint, but it was managing people,” he says. “I learned an awful lot. I learned to work hard.”

At 24, motivated by a nagging desire “to get the fuck out of Dodge,” Carey said goodbye to Dublin, but Philly was not his first American destination. That distinction goes to — of all places — Houston, Texas, to crash with a friend from Burgerland. “I hated it,” admits Carey, the fourth youngest of five brothers in a family who shares a love for literature and the arts. “I lasted three weeks. Might have been two. It was such a non-starter-friendly city. No green card, no money, no driver’s license. I used to walk around the place and cars would stop and stare at me.”

He received a much more auspicious welcome in Philly, where family friends found him both a place to stay — a room in a Center City house that cost $96 a month (!) — and a steady gig, working shifts as a busser and counter boy at El Taco Grande, which had locations on Sansom and in the Cherry Hill Mall.

“You end up bussing tables somewhere, you get a bicycle and then you got a life,” says Carey of his immediate embrace of the 215 and the bipedal mode of transport he still relies on heavily today. “I was wideeyed. I was a very happy guy.”

After lucking into a green card via federal lottery, Carey expanded his food-service horizons, pouring drinks at Magnolia Café (now Tequilas) and working the floor at Café Nola. But things truly got started for him once he landed at McGlinchey’s, the Center City dive that endeared him to Philly drinkers, one beer-and-shot at a time. “It was pretty fucking busy, and it still is,” says Carey, who tended bar Monday to Thursday for five years. “When I was working there, people would say to me, ‘I can’t believe you don’t smoke,’” referring to the notoriously hazy interior that’s persisted post-indoor smoking ban. “I’d say, ‘I don’t have to.’”

One frequenter of the nicotine-stained room was Peters, who at the time was managing Copa Too (now Pistola’s) next door. Though they’d met only once briefly, Carey “remembered what I was drinking and remembered my name,” recalls Peters. “I was impressed by that as only a second-time customer.”

A pioneering place for Belgian beers thanks to Peters’ close relationships with European brewers and importers, Copa, in turn, converted Carey into a craft devotee. “I got turned onto good beer by Tom,” he says. “The first good beer that I ever had was a Sierra Nevada, then of course all the Belgians.” (Kwak and Chimay were among the first of their ilk to occupy Copa’s draft lines.)

“I liked him right away,” adds Peters. “He’s a very personable guy. Funny, well-read, witty. Hell, if I were gay, I’d date him.”

The couple, er, partners would go on to open Monk’s in 1997, but the blossoming of this beer-addled bromance was preceded by the launch of Carey’s baby. From his perspective, his eponymous bar seemed like “the first new place to open up in a long time” — a funny concept considering the rapid rate at which Philly joints swing open their doors these days. “Back then, there were only a handful of places you would go,” says O’Brien. “Fergie’s was kind of a coup. And he was the coup master.”

Partnering with Bookbinder’s bartender Wajih Abed (“He’s Palestinian and I’m Irish. There are a lot of jokes there”), Carey opened Fergie’s Pub, “a very simple bar” by design, nearly 18 years ago. In 2012, the space, a German establishment for 70 years ahead of housing a string of ill-fitting concepts (a boozeless kosher restaurant, a lesbian club), is lodged right in the craw of a hopping nightlife district. In 1994? The area had a slightly different feel. “You would get your car broken into, your bicycle stolen, there was a brothel across the road,” says Carey.

“Both corners full of transvestite hookers. It was Center City, but it was a no-go area.”

The neighborhood was iffy, but it didn’t stop the regulars Carey and Abed cultivated at other bars from imbibing in droves. He remembers his first night at the “beautiful, dark bar,” when his father surprised him with a visit from Ireland. “We were opening up and I didn’t own a pair of trousers or a [dress] shirt — all I had was jeans and T-shirts,” recalls Carey. “So my dad says, ‘Why don’t we get you a pair of trousers?’ We walked uptown and around 40 people stopped me and asked when I was opening. I told them ‘Tonight!’ It was mobbed. There was a line to get in.”

Peters managed to beat everyone in the queue to the first-beer-sold punch. “When Fergie was opening, he came over to Copa Too and asked, ‘What beer do I have to carry to have you come in and patronize my bar?’” he says. “I gave him a few I thought would sell well. Then I went in and paid for the first beer in his place.” It was a Duvel — a felicitous sign of things to come. Good beer was, and still is, a primary focus at Fergie’s. “People think of Fergie’s not as a beer bar anymore,” says Parker. “But look at the list there, man. It came before Monk’s, and it had better beer before this whole thing started.”

Parker, who studied musical theater at UArts, frequented Fergie’s with such fervor during college that he ended up getting a job there as a dishwasher at the age of 21. He eventually moved onto hosting open mic nights and was the first bartender to serve drinks on the pub’s second floor. “He gave me my first advice about tending bar: That the least important part of tending bar is making drinks,” says Parker, whose partner in Pistola’s, Joe Gunn, is another Fergie’s alum.

That acuity for the customer led Peters to ID Carey as the ideal partner in Monk’s, the internationally admired bar credited as the harbinger of Belgian beer awareness in the United States. Peters and Carey took over the old 16th Street Bar & Grill on a Saturday night, raced to overhaul it and debuted the following Sunday. The city’s fermented embrace of its mussels, frites and  holy-text Beer Bible, “if not immediate, was close to immediate,” says Carey.

Peters didn’t require any lawyer-vetted paperwork to be convinced of Carey’s worth as an associate. “We did everything on a handshake, 50-50 partners,” he says. The duo now has interests in three additional places in Philly (Nodding Head, Grace Tavern and Belgian Café), plus stakes in a hotel in Scotland and a restaurant called Beer Bistro in Toronto. “Everything on a handshake, that’s it. No contracts.”

The burly-ABV egalitarian appeal of Monk’s has lent to its longevity. “In a good economy, people want to go there and have fun,” says O’Brien, an early employee of the bar. “In a bad economy, people want to go there and have fun.”

And many of those people, especially in the early days, were in the business, allowing Peters and Carey’s influence to manifest itself in the form of new bars with good, accessible beer. “When Monk’s opened, we had a ton of restaurant people coming in,” says Peters. “They’d talk about beer, but not really grasp it yet. Within a few months, they’d have one of those beers at their bar. The quality of food, the people who work with us, Fergie’s personality — all that helped [encourage] a bigger beer culture.”

Carey’s party-starting reputation might be his most conversationally marketable trait, but there is more to the man than just that. “A lot of people just see the wild hair,” says O’Brien of the married father of two. “But he’s also a shrewd businessman. He thinks about things. It’s not a mistake that he is as successful as he is.”

“The thing about Fergie is that it doesn’t look like he’s trying to do anything, and I think that’s why he’s so effective,” says Parker of his old boss, who’s also a prominent patron of the arts via his involvement with Irish theater, Live Arts Fringe and Brat Productions. “I didn’t learn everything from Fergie, but I follow his example. Just give a fuck. Care, and people will care about you.”

He’s been able to avoid becoming jaded in spite of his accomplishments. “I love when I turn him onto a beer he’s blown away by it,” says Peters. “Then I’ll go over to Fergie’s and he’s already carrying it. I can’t think of a better ambassador for bar culture in Philadelphia than Fergie.”

“I like to be at work. Constant love, you know?” says Carey, who’s made a habit out of visiting each of his establishments almost daily, of his work philosophy. “You’ve got to keep on top of things, keep loving it, keep enjoying it. It’s more about love than money. When I came here, I wanted a life, not a living.”

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