With 20 years behind it and venues in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, Mojo is one of the most influential bar groups in the country. As they prepare to open their first venue in London, Gaëlle Laforest meets the team for a few Jägers
Talk to anyone in Leeds, Manchester or Liverpool and they’ll have a Mojo story. On a recent Mancunian visit, everyone I met had one; from parties so huge the ceiling was dripping, to marriages that started on a messy night in the Bridge Street bar. Mostly though, they were of dancing on pretty much all surfaces of the venue – and of falling off them, too.
For a group that started off on the back of a pretty straightforward concept – good drinks to a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack – Mojo’s longevity is no mean feat. It’s probably the simplicity of that perfect formula that’s made it a stalwart of the north for so long. The original bar opened in Leeds in September 1996 (no one can remember the exact date), at a time when cocktails weren’t much of a thing there.
‘When Mojo Leeds opened it was on the back of the council wanting to promote it as a 24-hour city with European-style café bar culture,’ explains founder and director Mal Evans. ‘Before it was the norm to visit bars or pubs, and then for a later drink people had to go onto nightclubs. Once we started providing an atmosphere that was music-based and the licensing reform arrived, guests realised they could stay out late and have great drinks instead of having to pay cover charges and inflated prices for poor service.
‘And we played rock ‘n’ roll – even the local dance music promoters respected that. Rock ‘n’ roll sounds good in a bar!’
Naturally, you’d think now, it caught on; and was followed in 2005 by another bar in Manchester. A third venue opened in Liverpool three years later.
Still, Evans says he doesn’t understand how the hype came along. ‘Our element was just being human, saying: “Hello, how are you?” I don’t understand why that’s complicated.’
The man behind Mojo is a testament to the spirit of his venues. The grin is large and the voice is loud, and his hammering the table as he’s making a point echoes the beats of Mojo’s playlists. There’s no fuss: like his bars, he gets straight to the point.
Evans started bartending at TGI Friday’s at 18, and there met Roger Needham – with whom he would later go on to launch Mojo. There followed several years at Jack ‘n’ Danny’s in Harrogate with Needham, before heading to the Bahamas for a while (where there’s now a Mojo sister bar, too). Then he came back, and, with Needham, opened Mojo. Evans made the drinks, Needham took care of the music.
Evans is a natural at hospitality. At Mojo it’s not customers they serve, but guests – and his genuineness as he says it is a slap in the face of cynicism. It’s that interaction that makes Mojo what it is, even in the most physical sense. The bar is long and narrow to reduce the distance between guests and front of house, while stations and set ups are rethought regularly so everything looks simple and natural to retain focus on the guests.
‘It’s always been about people,’ Evans continues. ‘From the start, we focused on human beings in the room. We’ve been doing this almost 20 years now – back then we used to make sure that we had the coldest beer, the best music, that we shook hands and smiled a lot, and that was enough.’
Two decades later, the industry has obviously evolved, and Mojo has had to adapt to that. After all, not everything can just be about doing shaking hands and dancing on the bar. As talk turned to opening more venues, business had to be learnt. Martin Greenhow joined the line-up in 2003 as director after spending a year working the door part-time at the Leeds bar while he was studying business. He feels very much like the head on the shoulders of the party people.
‘When I was studying I had a lecturer who said that learning by experience is one of the slowest and most expensive methods, and that’s unfortunately the route we had to take,’ says Greenhow. ‘But it does mean it’s now ingrained in us.’
One thing they had to learn was that expansion is not a simple cut and paste. When they headed to Manchester, Evans first set out to use the successful Mojo Leeds template and recreate it across the Pennines.
‘It worked for a while, but then we started to realise the sites are individual cities, with individual needs. We drank a lot of Jäger, Mancunians drank a lot of Sambuca. We were a bit more rough and ready,’ he says.
Over time, though, Manchester saw its drinking scene adopt some of the rock ‘n’ roll party element that had been Leeds’ thing; and also added its grain of salt to Mojo’s increasingly legendary atmosphere – by getting onto the bar top to dance, something that had become a Mojo trademark. In that city especially, Mojo carved a niche between ‘fancy’ guest list-type bars and nightclubs playing great music; and soon it was making its presence felt. The party spirit spread to new venues, whose bartenders were found propping up the Bridge Street bar after hours.
Our element was just being human. I don’t understand why that’s complicated
‘We never meant to be an industry bar,’ Greenhow admits. ‘But we appealed to the industry and then they would tell others. It’s a matter of attitude – you can view venues around you as competition or as opportunities. More successful businesses around us means more pie for everybody.’
Liverpool was maybe the biggest gamble. In 2008, Evans remembers a heavily electronic soundtrack, with DJs aplenty. Then on the opening night, they played a Harry Belafonte track. ‘Suddenly someone started a huge conga line. Although it happened only once, at that time it was the perfect thing to do.’
Work hard, play hard
Beyond the atmosphere of the bars, it was business that became harder as the group grew. ‘With two it worked because you can either be in one or the other,’ says Evans. ‘Then we had three, which means that you’re always not in the majority of them. That’s when we had to really dig down into what was working for us operationally.’
There are now systems in place to make things work. From staff training and management, to drink development, through to business expansion and a Leeds-based head office, Mojo feels like it’s gone through its teenage years with the sometimes careless hopefulness of youth – an ‘it’s all probably going to work out’ sort of feeling – and is settling into a more mature perspective on things.
‘We needed more structure,’ Evans explains. ‘We created systems and controls to give people parameters to their work. Everybody was concerned that it would take the fun out of things. No. What it does is have people know exactly what’s going on. They can enjoy themselves without looking over their shoulder thinking: “Am I doing this right?”’
‘Some think that Mojo has to be absolute anarchy to work, but actually people like to know what they’re up to,’ adds Greenhow. ‘Also our staff are paid well, they get private medical, most senior guys will get a trip a year from brands; all pick up substantial benefits. To some extent we’re empowering them to find their own fun.’
It’s that team that’s been another crucial part of Mojo being a hit, and caring for it an essential priority. ‘A large part of Mojo’s success has to do with their being very progressive employers so far as the industry is concerned,’ says Sam Fish, who joined nine years ago as a bartender and is now in charge of drinks development for the group. ‘They expect hard work but offer incentive to do this, and also the opportunity to grow with the brand.’
That had to be learnt too, though. Evans now laughs about Mojo’s original accidentally anarchic ‘puppetry system’ team management system – they’d give a job to any and all who asked. Now staff are selected more carefully, sourcing bartenders both in-house and out, with the aim to improve the team’s skills and grow the venture. ‘We’re only as good as our team,’ Evans says. ‘If you don’t invest in it, it’s not going to work.’
Bright city lights
Now Mojo is headed in search of a slice of an entirely bigger pie. The plan is to open a first venue in London as soon as possible, with more to follow if it works well, and an eye on the rest of the country too: Edinburgh, Glasgow or Birmingham are some cities on a wish-list that primarily focuses on great sites.
Greenhow acknowledges that getting the first London venue right is really important. Both men are conscious of the risk of presenting the Mojo formula to a worldly capital crowd, used to seeing concepts come and go weekly.
‘I don’t know that our cheeky chappy attitude is going to work when we come to London,’ Evans admits. ‘We’ll still have our core element but I don’t think that’ll be enough. We need to be clever in what we do.’
When we speak, they’re still looking for the perfect site, aware that location is everything in the capital, especially for its initial Mojo. At a time when venues born in London are looking to Manchester themselves, cracking the Smoke looks tricky.
Some think that Mojo has to be absolute anarchy but actually people like to know what they’re up to
Still, with 30% of their social media following based in London, and years on end of Mojo fans nagging them to head south, they finally feel ready.
‘We always said we’d do it, but we’ve only just got our shit together,’ semi-jokes Evans. ‘Three years ago we sat down, slapped ourselves across the face and looked at where we were going.’ From that came a plan for 10 Mojos across the country, with four in London, by 2022. A Mojo empire, then?
That’s not quite the idea, says Greenhow. ‘I don’t think that Mojo scales up infinitely – things have to be authentic. If you make things false, it might work for a little while but people will see through it very quickly.’
Throughout the years, the menus have stayed true to themselves: there’s been innovation, but it’s still filled with recognisable classics, and neither blended disco drinks nor short boozy classics were ever shrugged at.
As Evans puts it, ‘If we can get a great burger, a great cold beer, a great Margarita to a great rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack,
I don’t think we’re miles off to where we need to be.’
The trade on Mojo
Sophie Bratt started as a barback at Mojo Leeds, and worked there five years. She’s now the assistant bar manager at the Oxo Tower
‘The main thing I took from Mojo is Mal’s incredible ethos of breaking down the bar; so that there is no line between bartender and customer; we simply become friends enjoying a drink. I think this is what really makes Mojo shine and sets it apart from other bars. Mal never let bartenders become prima donnas; we were always a team.’
JJ Goodman of London Cocktail Club worked in Leeds in 2003
‘As a young bartender growing up it was exciting to be in there. The culture that they instilled in their bars, the energy and the swagger that came out of their bartenders was brilliant. You were almost intimidated to be around them but at the same time it was all about sharing and caring – they made you feel at home. That energy, that electric feeling you get when you walk in, it’s very unique to Mojo. The service is always immaculate, even though the speed they work at is impressive. Mojo was kind of one of the last/new proper saloon bars. It’s something I’ve always tried to build in my own bars.’
Lyndon Higginson owns Liars Club and Crazy Pedro’s Part-Time Pizza Parlour, both downstairs from Mojo Manchester
‘Mojo has always been about a beer and a shot with your mates and that’s the perfect recipe in my book. Every bartender in Manchester has gotten embarrassingly drunk at Mojo. There’s a very good reason Liars and Pedro’s are underneath Mojo. It’s just a great place to hang out and really let your hair down after a long shift.’
Sam Fish has been with Mojo almost 10 years
‘I think the thing that has made me stay so long is that it’s the strongest hospitality brand I’ve seen. From a guest’s perspective I suppose the Mojo theme is so simple and that’s what brings people back. Mojo always feels like it belongs to everyone and promotes fierce loyalty from our regulars. I love that the brand has managed to keep its soul, yet moving through the years has always seemed to stay and feel current.’
Photos: Hannah Webster