Guardians of the north: The renaissance of the northern bar scene

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

03 June 2019

The northern bar scene is booming, with world-class venues opening – and thriving – across the region. But why? And why now? Laura Foster talks to those keeping the forces of darkness at bay


From the dockside city of Liverpool in the west, to the funky metropolises of Leeds and Sheffield in the east, the northern bar scene is enjoying a bit of a moment.

Leading lights in the industry are opening top-notch venues at such a dizzying speed that, frankly, it can be hard to keep up with all the change.

In Manchester, businesses are popping up like daisies. Mission Mars, a relatively new bar group, received a £10m investment last year and is gaining momentum; Lyndon Higginson is continuing to build his empire one crazy pizza parlour or one-off bar concept at a time, even as he encourages his team at Science & Industry to push the boundaries of the city’s drinks culture.

Liverpool has shifted from its glam nightclub phase into a more quirky, independent mindset, with new areas such as the previously derelict Cains Brewery Village injecting further excitement and business opportunities into the city.

Across the Pennines, Leeds has seen a slew of impressive new venues opening, including the Domino Club, Below Stairs and The Watermark, while tried-and-trusted companies such as Sandinista Group and Mojo continue to fight the good fight.

They’re winning awards, too. In Sheffield, Rockingham Group is leading the way in building a killer bar scene. Co-owners James Hill and James O’Hara are busy opening two new sites under the name Ambulo, while their tiny cocktail bar Public was named best bar in the UK 2018 by Observer Food Monthly.

Different Body, a cocktail from Cottonopolis
Different Body, a cocktail from Cottonopolis

Cottonopolis in Manchester won Imbibe’s Avant-Garde and Best Overall Drinks List of the Year 2018 awards, beating some of the best bars in the country in the process.

‘I wanted to be spoken about in the same brackets as the best bars in the UK, for people to know and recognise it,’ says head bartender Gethin Jones. ‘We were there with Dandelyan, Connaught, American Bar… so to win, it was absolutely nuts.’

‘I think it was good that Cottonopolis won,’ says James O’Hara, whose venue Picture House Social Club won the Avant-Garde Drinks List of the Year award in 2017. ‘It was a big thing for us when we won. For Sheffield to win [the Avant-Garde award] one year and Manchester to win it the next, I was chuffed for them. The more places that get recognised in the north, the better.’

That’s not to say that Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield weren’t killing it before. But right now there’s a sense of magic emanating from the north, and a real feeling of camaraderie between the operations that perhaps wasn’t there in the past. A lot of proprietors are pulling in the same direction.

‘There’s some cool stuff going on up here, and it feels like the north is starting to band together as a suburb,’ says Gethin Jones.

‘There is a lot of local rivalry, or there was,’ says O’Hara. ‘You draw a line between the cities, there is two hours between us. We should have banded together a lot earlier. A load of it is just tribalism. It doesn’t help that I’m a Sheffield Wednesday fan and I hate Leeds United. We need to just pull together, and [now] there is more of a willingness to do that.’

One such partnership is the recent takeover between Public and Belzan, which saw the teams travel between their respective homes, Sheffield and Liverpool, to host sell-out evenings. ‘This year we’re much more motivated to get people to travel and treat it as a collective,’ says Belzan proprietor Chris Edwards.

The more places that get recognised in the north, the better

James O’Hara

A group mentality

The development of the northern bar scene, broadly speaking, is a tale of different waves of business owners opening their venues, making a success of it and opening other venues, eventually becoming multi-site operators of various scales.

The big groups of Arc Inspirations, and especially Living Ventures, have loomed large since their inceptions in the 1990s.

Living Ventures started in 1993 with JW Johnson’s in Manchester’s Deansgate. Since then, it’s opened dozens of sites under a number of brand concepts, including The Alchemist, which underwent a management buyout by Palatine Private Equity for a cool £13m in 2015. (The same equity firm also bought 65% of Living Ventures’ pizza chain Gusto for £10m in 2014.)

Many people credit Living Ventures’ training schemes with giving them the skills they needed to start their own businesses.

‘A lot of current operators came from Living Ventures,’ says Danny Murphy of Gracious Development Group in Liverpool. ‘The thing that they always focused on was the training on the ground level. When I joined [Living Ventures], I joined because I knew I’d be made a much better bartender than anywhere else.

‘As soon as you become a chain, people become a little sneery towards you. We still use some of [Living Ventures’] core training manuals. I bet other businesses rehash them in their own words.’

Other more indie groups such as Mojo and Sandinista also started out at the same time. Mojo began in 1996, opening its second site in Manchester nine years later.

The next wave of entrepreneurs includes Lyndon Higginson in Manchester and Danny Murphy in Liverpool. Both had great success opening new concepts left, right and centre, before becoming more business-oriented and organising into official bar groups in recent years.

‘We’ve got quite a few venues, [so] we’re in a bit of a consolidation period,’ says Murphy. ‘In 2010 [when we were starting out] there was a bunch of guys saying, there’s a recession on, don’t you know? And we were trying to buck that trend. Now we’re the old men of the scene.’

The new owners keep on coming. The likes of Chris Edwards of Filter + Fox and Belzan, and Joe and Dan Schofield (due to open a site in Manchester this year) are all names to watch.

The current northern bar explosion might most obviously be due to talented people making good decisions, but it’s also the result of economic conditions being right.

‘You can find [a venue] that’s relatively low cost in comparison to somewhere down south,’ says Felix Crosse, head of bars at The Alchemist. ‘And you’re much more likely to find the right location.

‘Cities that, 10 years ago, weren’t doing very well, are now benefiting from economic growth. Manchester is booming – we’re seeing that reflected in our sales.’

Then there’s the 24/7 party atmosphere that some of these cities – especially Manchester and
Leeds – have enjoyed.

Crazy Pedro's in Liverpool
Crazy Pedro's in Liverpool

‘All my bars, pretty much, are open until 4am every single night,’ says Higginson. ‘Pedro’s opens at midday and closes at 4am every day. That’s hard graft, that is, for all of the guys. The guys are amazing in this place. It probably wouldn’t work in London.’

Ah yes. London. Should it be held up as a yardstick against which to judge bars everywhere? Higginson doesn’t think so. ‘The comparisons between the north and London will always be made for some of the wrong reasons. [People say] “That’s as good as a bar in London,” when they are very different places,’ he says.

Is winter coming?

Having said all that, some operators are noticing a few issues that mean the next few years might not be all plain sailing.

There’s been a real shift in drinking culture. Leeds, traditionally seen as a good-time city where the bars were packed throughout the week, has changed, says Lee Jones, business development manager of the Sandinista Group.

‘The old format of opening up a bar and people flocking to it doesn’t work anymore,’ he says.

All my bars are open until 4am every single night. That’s
hard graft. It probably wouldn’t work in London

Lyndon Higginson

‘Summer was really hard for a lot of venues in Leeds. It made everyone sit up and take notice. A World Cup and a consistently hot summer – outside areas in Leeds are like gold dust, and it hit a lot of venues really hard. It’s made everyone re-evaluate what gets people into bars.’

Price promotions and two-for-one offers, it seems, may no longer be the solution to these problems.

‘It’s new territory for us all,’ says Lee Jones. ‘You haven’t had to work as hard for it before. We were reliant on people going out two or three times a week, and now that’s gone. The number of bars has increased significantly, the price of everything has gone up, you have to charge more, so you have to justify that.

‘I do think that the old ways are changing, and you have a new demographic of people who don’t drink the same way we did and who have a different attitude to it, so we need to adapt to that.’

In Manchester, Gethin Jones admits that many businesses are going under, but he sees this as a necessary sifting of the wheat from the chaff.

‘The closure of some of these average bars isn’t necessarily a bad thing,’ he says phlegmatically.

‘The talented people in those bars will go on to other jobs where they can make their mark. We are seeing the death of mediocrity, and consumers are being more conscious with what they are buying.’

We’re seeing the death of mediocrity, consumers are being
more conscious with what they’re buying

Gethin Jones

Change is not just about lifting the quality of venues, though. In Liverpool, Murphy notes that experience-based nights out present a significant disruptor to the industry, and bars must adapt to this in order to survive. ‘People might sign up to Gin Journey and Ghetto Golf. Where previously they’d spend £70 on a night out and spend it in bars, they’ll take that money and spend it in one experience where they’ve got you for three or four hours.

‘These experience-led things are a challenge to bars. They are taking people out of the game for hours, and when they come out the other end their wallets are lighter, and they might have had enough to drink at that point anyway,’ he says.

Despite these challenges, Emma Greathead, the front-of-house trainer for Arc Inspirations, which currently boasts 19 venues in cities across the north, feels that there is still plenty to be optimistic about in the region’s bar scene.

‘Last year I wondered whether we had reached the saturation point, but then another fantastic venue opens and ticks all the boxes, and is really successful,’ she says. ‘If people like what you’re doing, then it doesn’t matter.’

It’s the reason why, even with Brexit-induced uncertainties regarding staffing and the economy, she doesn’t foresee any problems for bars that have got their propositions right.

‘It’s got to be great food, drinks, service and music,’ says Greathead. ‘People want to know they’re getting value for money. If you’re paying £8 for a cocktail, it has to be worth it. If any of those elements are missing, you’re not going to get the repeat trade.’

Sandinista
Sandinista

Lee Jones, meanwhile, is focusing on events to pull in the crowds – everything from set menus to actual ticketed events.

‘People just want a little bit more from their night out, and the old bar format doesn’t work,’ he says. ‘Smokestack and Sandinista have been around long enough that they have built up a rapport with a large audience, but if you are going to open up a new site, then it can’t just be a bar.’

Talkin’ ’bout regeneration

Many of this article’s interviewees have new venues in the pipeline. Although they were cautious about sharing any specifics on their projects just yet, rising rents look likely to see moves to either the suburbs or regenerated parts of these cities – particularly for the industry’s smaller players.

Policy-makers have now started to acknowledge the importance of a vibrant nightlife in defining a city’s culture, and in using it to regenerate run-down areas. As Chris Edwards points out, ‘Liverpool and the north have so many run-down areas. They’re a perfect breeding ground for developing new ideas.’

For all the seriousness of this article, however, what really defines this northern band of cities is their sense of fun. As the irrepressible Higginson says, ‘I think the bar scene as a whole in the UK has levelled out. There’s still some little peaks of amazingness in London, and there’s some peaks of amazingness everywhere else in the country as well. I think we’re getting closer and closer.

‘The more people come to all of these northern powerhouses like Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, the more people will realise that everyone cares about the product, the drinks and the customer service, and everyone cares about having a good time.

‘I actually think that people from London are going to start looking into that a lot more because they’ve got lots to learn there.

‘Over time, everyone’s got a bit too serious with stirred-down drinks, rather than actually thinking, “I want to go somewhere, put my tie around my head and have a party whilst drinking amazing drinks.” Not me, I’m going to wear my tie around my head.’


Featured image by Steve Caplin

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