Former San Jose pub owners put community first
Former owners of Britannia Arms John McKay and Michael North raised thousands of dollars for the community in times of tragedy and need. The signature British telephone booth sits outside the pubs. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    For John McKay, owning a pub is in his Scottish blood. For Englishman Michael North, it’s his calling. Together, the two former owners of Britannia Arms of Almaden Valley built a business that focused on giving back and treating every customer like family.

    For North, 60, who grew up poor in England, doing things for others is part of his life. As a child, he wore shoes until they fell off his feet.

    “I came from a long line of nothing, watched my mother struggle and families on government housing. I was lucky I went to a boarding school that had hot water, radiators, clean clothes and food. My mother did the best she could. I would get something for Christmas, but it was one thing,” he told San José Spotlight, which motivates him to do toy drives.

    North’s father was in the army, but left when he was young. His mother’s second husband, who was nasty and violent, wasn’t fond of him. After their divorce, she remarried an American and relocated the family to Arkansas. North visited family in California and stayed. He considers himself fortunate to have joined Britannia Arms after working in the food industry.

    “I don’t know if I’d stayed in England if I’d have had the same opportunity,” he said.

    McKay, 75, said his mother’s family owned a pub in Scotland where he worked as a youth. McKay’s father worked in a bank and his mother was a housewife. He found inspiration in her.

    “She was always a kind person,” he said. “She took care of people.”

    McKay attended Paisley College of Technology in Scotland and worked in accounting for a textile manufacturer before coming to the United States. After working as a district manager for a convenience store chain, he opened a Mountain Mike’s pizzeria.

    Tom Cauge, McKay and Andy Hewitt opened Britannia Arms of Almaden Valley in 1988. North began working there as a bartender and cook in 1989. He became a partner around 1995 when Hewitt left to open a branch in Aptos. Through the years,  McKay and North expanded their pubs into Capitola, Carmel, Monterey, downtown San Jose and San Jose Mineta International Airport. In 2022, they sold all the businesses.

    After McKay and North sold the Almaden Valley pub, North stayed on as general manager. Today, he helps out as needed, from creating traditional British food to greeting customers.

    “The best part of working The Brit is the people, staff and customers,” North said.

    Dan Miller, a stadium announcer for the San Jose Sharks, San Francisco 49ers and San Jose Earthquakes, said it’s been uplifting helping with fundraiser events for Britannia Arms for almost 25 years. Miller said McKay and North put community first.

    “They’re the kindest, most giving, caring, generous people,” he told San José Spotlight. “There were just endless toy drives and bikes for kids. Every single holiday season that place would just light up and donations would come flooding in.”

    The pair’s fundraising efforts were sparked by 9/11, during which they collected $130,000 for the Red Cross. This was just the start. The following year they raised $100,000 for the San Jose Fire Department burn unit and San Jose Police Department chaplain’s fund. In April 2015, they raised $140,000 for the family of slain San Jose police officer Michael Johnson. They sprang to action again, raising funds after the July 2019 mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. They also held annual turkey, bicycle and toy drives and fed EMTs and police officers free of charge during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    Anytime families or anyone was in need, Britannia Arms was going to help, Miller said.

    “They really had a way of bringing together people from all over the community… to make lives better,” he said.

    The San Jose City Council recently recognized McKay and North, with Councilmember Pam Foley describing the pair as “beacons of light” who opened their hearts and doors to the community during times of need and tragedy.

    North said most people don’t come to The Brit just to drink. They come to socialize. The pub is a place to celebrate birthdays and gather for memorials. He said a queen or a dishwasher could be sitting at a table, but either way “everyone is equal.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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