Good fella

24 March, 2015

Cocktail entrepreneur JJ Goodman has spent his life making his own luck. He tells Hamish Smith how he went from chicken shop to bar royalty


A MAN WHO CAN ASSEMBLE AND EAT A CRISP SANDWICH DURING AN INTERVIEW – an interview in which he is the subject – is a man at ease with himself. And so he should be; things have gone well for this Brummie-turned-Londoner of late. 

Sandwich dispatched, Goodman’s imposing frame arches back into one of the booths of his London Cocktail Club, Shoreditch. He is in ebullient mood as he explains how the sleepless nights of a young entrepreneur are now a thing of the past. “I’ve turned 30, I’ve got eight fucking bars and everything is going really well. I need to do a bit more running and get my figure in shape but I’m happy.” 

The Islington site, which opens any time now, is the latest addition to the LCC stable, but not the last. “We could rattle off another five in London,” he says, as if opening bars was like ordering drinks. “We still need to do Soho, Brixton, the City, Camden – those are four that are begging to be done. You can also throw in Notting Hill, Chelsea, Clapham…” Goodman knows how – and, crucially, where – to put on a party. 

His bar life started in Worcester, where he had moved from Birmingham as a teenager. His first cocktail – a Grasshopper – was made at Keystones more than a decade ago and, perhaps sentimentally, two years ago he returned to the scene of the crime (though he said it tasted nice) to take on the lease. A nice piece of boy-done-good symmetry, because in the proceeding years, he has climbed to the top of his business. Worcester was Goodman’s start point but who knows how life would have turned out if he hadn’t been spotted flairing in a chicken shop with a of bottle of tomato ketchup.

He ended up “getting paid to throw bottles around”, touring from the midlands north and, at times, internationally. Eventually London called, and though there were still hankerings to make use of his qualifications in design, that would have to wait until he had an empire of bars to deck-out. First came working under just about every bar operator in the capital, getting sacked for turning a restaurant-bar into a nightclub and, finally, opening his first LCC site in Covent Garden.

“We were open four months when we got the phone call from the BBC,” he says, getting into one of his better known tales. “My business partner James Hopkins and I did eight auditions for The Restaurant.” The primetime TV show offered contestants the chance to win an investment and partnership with star of the show Raymond Blanc. Initially Goodman and Hopkins were placed in reserve but when a contestant failed the psyche test, they were asked to step up. “I’d worked bars, floors, cafes but never been in the kitchen.” For most people that would be a reason not to compete on a cookery show, but for Goodman it was the reason for appearing on a cookery show. In preparation he “crash-coursed” with cookery books and lessons from friends, but the show didn’t start well. “Every week we just happened to be less shit than the guys that got kicked out. You name it, we fucked it up.”

Winning streak

In trying times, Goodman turned to what he knew. “I busted out my cocktail kit and that went down really well – we started battling through the rounds. In the final we were supposed to make blinis – which I thought were peach bellinis – but turned out to be stupid pancakes. Then there was the soufflé which they “destroyed” but, as they had the egg whites, blackcurrants, lemon, sugar and found some coupettes, managed to deliver a Silver Fizz, adding the champagne at the table so the cocktails rose like soufflés. “That’s how we won The Restaurant,” he says.

The result was controversial, even more so when it transpired Goodman and Hopkins didn’t want to open a restaurant. But because the first two series’ winners’ restaurants had flopped, Blanc was persuaded to invest in the bar business. A decision he probably doesn’t regret – he is now a 20% shareholder in the LCC group. “Raymond is on the board of directors and we see him every three months for quarterly board meetings. He’s become a real role model for me and a really good friend.”

Though he’s not behind the stick anymore (“if I was I’d probably screw it up”), his talent is now in business – not least his knack for networking. “Apparently I network a lot. I don’t think I do – I just drink really heavily and insist everyone else does. It works in this industry – in accountancy maybe less.”

Ambition underpins everything he does. He doesn’t want to make a great cocktail for a few people, he wants to make a lot of cocktails for a lot of people. When he broke through it was at a time that when the industry was going through its serious phase. “When I first got into mixology there was so much pretence it was disgusting. I don’t want to brew that pretentiousness in my teams. Mixology is much better these days, but it’s still fucking bitchy.” 

While some bartenders gravitated to the crafted, sometimes preachy end of the business, Goodman is unashamedly commercial. “I’ll take money from anyone. Quality is so subjective. If you can’t make a beautiful drink using Tesco’s own-brand gin, you’re in the wrong industry. I like to champion the little guy but you’ve got to make money. People tell me what I should have on my speed rail – I have up-sell brands on the back bar, but I promise value for money. People turn up with their £30-a-pop gin brands. I actually know the breakdown of costs and where they’re finding that extra £15 is incredible – but I’m the bad guy for loving Bombay Sapphire? Well, get over yourself.”  

New horizons

The Craft Cocktail Company, Goodman’s latest venture, is aimed at taking bottled cocktails to venues that lack the resources to make them themselves. But the business has already branched out. “B2B is great but let’s go and make money off the back of the festivals – let’s shift a load of product and get our name out there at the same time. And have a bit of fun while we’re at it.”

If the straight-talking Jamie Oliver-parallel wasn’t already obvious, Goodman has a project that certainly draws comparison. “I’m working on The Institute – what is Jamie’s 15 for bartending.” For the unaccustomed, Oliver famously opened restaurants staffed by underprivileged young adults. Goodman’s academies will roll out to 12 cities. 

“These kids are really cool, hungry, passionate and creative – some just can’t find the breaks. In bartending you can arrive unskilled and, with the right mentoring, travel the world, working with big brands – and getting paid to do it.” 

This first ever bartender NVQ is also in the system. “We’re getting serious government people budgeting and signing off on this shit. It’s absolutely fucking immense,” says Goodman. “We are looking at developing bartending in the UK. I have a couple of books to work on and we’re doing a cocktail kit with a You Tube channel to back it up.”

Goodman is ahead of the game, but not yet Oliver.  “When we heard about his Drinks Tube I said: ‘When did Jamie Oliver get into cocktails? Can’t he leave us anything?’ But he’s an intelligent guy looking for solutions and he can now work on things he wants to work on. Everything he touches turns to gold. I’m really driven by other people’s success. I’m competitive. Embracing your competitiveness is positive. Being honest with yourself is liberating.”

Goodman’s plan is to one day sell up. He’d like to find somewhere “to surf in the summer and snowboard in the winter”, but life as a retiree doesn’t seem to fit his billing. Besides, as he admits “I surf a lot but I’m still fucking shit at it”. What he is not shit at is business and, for Goodman, the buzz is most definitely in the biz.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.