The concept creator

The concept creator

Lyndon Higginson is not a man to sit still for long. During our chat in Manchester’s Junkyard Golf, he is up several times – to move his car or to talk to staff and suppliers. The same can be said for his imagination, which has rarely rested on one concept for long before something completely different flares up and his beloved Manchester receives another totally unique venue.

Now he is beginning to expand geographically too. Junkyard Golf Club, which he set up with Chris Legh, Bart Murphy and Mat Lakes, has a permanent Manchester site near Deansgate, one in London’s Old Truman Brewery, and a third that recently opened in Oxford’s Westgate following a £500,000 investment. Added to that, his Liars Club company, which he founded with Jobe Ferguson and Ross Mackenzie, has received a £700,000 investment from Barclays as it rolls out its Crazy Pedro’s Part Time Pizza Parlour concept to Liverpool, Leeds and beyond, while also opening a pub in Manchester called The Bay Horse Tavern.

A bar for bartenders

Nine years ago, Higginson was working at a tiki bar in the Northern Quarter called Keko. The bar was named ‘the best good time bar in the UK’ and Higginson saw an opportunity to take Keko to a bigger stage. He started Liars Club – a speakeasy tiki bar with a heavy rum influence – underneath Mojo cocktail bar. After that, he opened Cane & Grain, a three-storey venue with three different concepts on each floor. Then the first Crazy Pedro’s, between Mojo and Liars Club, specialising in tequila, mezcal and pizza, arrived in Manchester. A second Pedro’s soon followed in the Northern Quarter. And while the focus is on partying, Higginson has long wanted his clientele to be drawn from the industry.

“They’re all quite in-your-face venues and they’re all quite similar but totally different as well, which I like,” says Higginson. “All of our places have always been really industry-led. Coming from being a bartender, I said to my business partners that we needed to get all of the bartenders in there having a great time all the time. Because what makes a fucking cool bar and what gives it more legs and longevity is if you’ve got the industry behind it. These are the guys who are going to advertise the bar for us.”

Higginson has long been wary of ‘diluting’ a brand by rolling out a series of carbon copies, but now there are three Junkyards and two Pedro’s, with more openings in the pipeline. He can envisage up to eight Pedro’s and is not averse to opening more Cane & Grains. But he is determined to ensure that in each city where he opens, the venue feels like a cool new place where the local bartenders will flock.

“I don’t want to thin it down,” he says. “But if you start small and you’ve got the right team behind you, all the sites can all be like the first one you ever opened. You make it cool and do it in the right city where there’s nothing like it. Suddenly you’ve got bartenders who love your site and you’ve got your fanbase again.”

Diverse focus

Before opening his first Junkyard, but while some of his other concepts were running successfully, Higginson also ran Friday Food Fight with Legh. Located in the Great Northern Warehouse, it featured food traders, pop-up bars and DJs every Friday night. When that expanded to a weekly festival spanning the whole of Deansgate Mews – which they called Street – it gave Higginson opportunities to trial new ideas for more bars. Two of these were The Golden Pineapple and Bunny Jackson’s Juke Joint. Another was Junkyard Golf Club, which they set up in a warehouse over the summer at short notice when most of the street food traders were at music festivals. Overall, Street ended up losing around £800,000, but from its existence, Higginson had three workable concepts which he could run in permanent sites.

“Would I pay £800,000 to get three concepts that are amazing, one being Junkyard Golf Club?” asks Higginson. “Yes. So you look at it one way, it’s annoying that we’ve lost money, but look at it another way and it’s not so bad. We got something that’s remarkably successful, a site that we really like and one that we’re dead excited about.”

Creating an entirely new concept with every new opening can be seen as a strenuous task even for the most ambitious and imaginative operators. But when you consider that each of Higginson’s new openings has focused heavily on one particular spirit and being the place in Manchester renowned for it – be it rum, bourbon, tequila, mezcal or, in the case of his latest opening The Golden Pineapple, gin. This has required a complete immersion in the products on the part of Higginson and his teams, a challenge that he has thoroughly embraced and enjoyed.

“I’ve always really liked the places that just do one thing, but really well,” he explains. “At the start it was easy, because Liars Club was all about rum and I am still one of the biggest rum fans in the world. Cane & Grain came next, but I knew a lot less about bourbon – hence why we also included Cane in the name. I wasn’t even the biggest tequila or mezcal fan at the time, but I absolutely love them now.

“It’s been difficult, but I like that learning curve. You need your managers to be learning before the bar opens, so there’s a massive amount of hard work to it. You need to learn, you need to taste and you need to put yourself through all these different things. Your palate adjusts pretty quickly and your knowledge comes along with that. I can’t wait to open a vodka bar! I probably could – vodka can become cool again.”

As well as the spirits, he also wants to offer the best and latest craft beer, while the specialisation in certain food – be it ribs, burgers or pizzas – has also required constant research, investigation and innovation, visiting the States to get smokers, coming up with a different pizza every month and investing in ingredients.

“People want this amazing food now and you’ve got to give it to them,” says Higginson. “You’ve got to be at the top of your game and that means you’ve got to research and research and test everything. You’ve just got to go with the food that you like. That’s the only way you can really do it and have any love for it.”

The Manchester scene

After years creating concepts for the Manchester faithful, Higginson has finally stretched his legs. With an Oxford and a London Junkyard open, he is already looking at Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham and Bristol. However, his heart remains in Manchester, a city that he believes should get a lot more recognition than it currently receives and one where he expects to see many more bars opening.

“There are some amazing guys in Manchester, but they’ve also opened all these cool places in London and further afield,” he comments. “I should push Manchester more than I do. Everyone should get behind it. We need to give the north more of a push. We need people to come up and see us more. I think there’s still a lot more to come from Manchester as a city and it’s expanding all the time.”

However, Higginson sees a different attitude to bars and drinking in London compared to the north. His Manchester bars frequently stay open until 4am even on weekdays, but are rarely busy immediately after work finishes. The majority of the Manchester population will have driven into town to work, whereas in London the public transport means people can drink straight after work but rarely linger beyond the last tube. Thus, when people ‘go out’ in Manchester, they go out for a big night.

“In Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, there’s nothing wrong with going out until 4am on a Monday,” he explains. “You get home as quick as you can, dump the car and get a cab back in. You can stay out until 4am because whatever happens you’re going home in a taxi. People’s attitude is just having a good time. Bars are there for people to unwind and let their hair down and forget about what’s happening in the day. And people in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds always know that. But then, I don’t think the general public in Manchester are as knowledgeable as the public in London are about drinks.”

Higginson’s intention is to balance that sense of having a good time in quirky and fun venues with a real thirst for information and knowledge about the products he has grown to love. He is looking into starting tasting clubs at some of his venues, where bartenders can come to learn about rum or tequila, and he hopes that he can extend these to be more consumer-facing as he bids to showcase his industry and all it has to offer.

“I’ve always thought this is the best industry in the world,” he concludes. “I always will. I think there’s a massive way to go with it. You see all the food programmes, but there are no drinks shows. Someone should get out there and do it. Bartenders all over the world are ready to go out there and do something crazy.”