In 2011 Les Hall and Marko Husak decided to open a brand new cafe-style bar on Bradford’s North Parade. They were taking a huge risk. North Parade was a struggling street on the fringes of a city suffering from low occupancy rates and falling trade. The potential was there but few would have predicted the transformation over the next four years.
The Sparrow was an instant hit with Bradfordians looking for something a bit different and quickly became the city’s zeitgeist venue. It was the catalyst the street was crying out for and provided the inspiration and confidence for a string of independent venues to follow suit and open up in the area. North Parade is now firmly established as a destination in its own right and hoping to make a mark as it competes for Britain’s Best City Location at the Great British High Street Awards. That’s some rise.
We caught up with City Centre Manager Jonny Noble, Sparrow owner Les Hall and Record Cafe supremo Keith Wildman to reflect on the street’s success story and see how the award nomination came about.
“Some time ago we were made aware of the Great British High Street Awards, which celebrate the areas of towns and cities that have shown imagination, creativity and improvement,” said Jonny, “We immediately thought of North Parade as a possible contender because of all the improvements and activity there over the last four years since the Sparrow opened.”
With its hat in the ring North Parade quickly saw off dozens of entries, including Nottingham and Norwich, to reach the final shortlist. The street will now represent Bradford in a final showdown against Cambridge and Northampton, with a public vote deciding 50% of the outcome. Voting closes on 13 November and although Bradford is off to a good start already the team are looking for a big push as the deadline approaches.
“The closing date for voting is almost upon us so we’re now at the final push stage. Over the past month social media campaigns using the hashtag #GBHighstreet have encouraged Bradford residents to vote for North Parade, with 50% of the outcome being decided on the public vote,” pointed out Jonny.
He is confident that Bradford can at least secure the first half of the process with a strong final push. “In the first weekend of voting there were 25,000 votes cast. I’d like to think that because of the strength behind the North Parade family and the work we’ve done already that we’ll be looking strong in the voting process.”
“We’ve been working hard on social media and we want to encourage as many people as possible to get behind the campaign and vote for Bradford. The voting process is unusual in that you can vote once a day every day for every email address you use so it’s an ongoing thing until we reach that deadline.”
The second half of the award process will be decided by a judging panel who will visit and assess each of the contenders. Johnny admits it’s difficult to know what the judges will be looking for, but he’s confident North Parade will impress, “We really need to wow the judges and make sure the street is looking as good as it possibly can do. Let’s hope they enjoy a drink too!”
The incentive, other than a great sense of civic pride of course, is a prize pool of £80,000, which will be shared across the categories. This will amount to around £10,000 for each winner as well as a digital masterclass from Google, who will visit the winners and help them develop their digital strategies. There’s also the publicity element which Jonny is keen to highlight, “It’s not just the financial incentive, it’s more positivity and good news for the city centre.”
Despite Bradford’s confident start to the campaign, the team are being careful not to jump the gun and are holding off making plans on how to spend the winnings. “We haven’t made any plans at all yet – we don’t want to count our chickens, and if we do win it’s something that deserves the input of all the retailers.” said Jonny.
Some early ideas mooted have been improvements to the North Parade Street Party to take some of the strain off the business owners who currently run the event. “The prize money would give us the option to bring in an events team to run the street party, which is currently organised by the retailers themselves on top of their regular business. Whatever the outcome it would need to demonstrate a positive economic effect on both the city centre and North Parade.”
However, Record Cafe owner Keith Wildman has other ideas, “There’s what I think would work really well, and then what I think would be really cool. What would be really cool would be a giant statue of Phil Parkinson. I think that would be superb. However, if I have to be serious I’m always happy to see things that improve the look of the street, whether that’s cleaning up the buildings or lighting up the trees.”
The emergence of North Parade has undoubtedly become one of Bradford’s great success stories from the past decade and something Jonny is pleased to see seeping out into the wider area. “When Les and Marko opened The Sparrow back in 2011 there was a 30% vacancy rate on this street – now we’re down to about 7%. Bearing in mind that the city centre vacancy rate is about 19% that represents a massive achievement.”
“Confidence breeds confidence and the way the guys work together here is testament to that collaborative approach. I was here at the Sparrow last night and people were ordering pizza from Mamma Mia’s round the corner to eat in the bar. Recently we had the Little Lights Nights with Les and Keith working together to run an outdoor bar. I think it’s a really effective approach and the new bars on the West End can learn a lot from how those on North Parade operate. There’s no rivalry here because they all understand how important it is to work together.”
I ask Les Hall what makes North Parade stand out and why it deserves this award. “I think it’s the independence – having a strong collection of independent businesses makes it easier to get along and work together. It’s important to remember that there were a lot of independents here long before The Sparrow came along. People like Mamma Mia, Bradford Camera Exchange and Cafe Bleu who have toughed it out here for years.”
In terms of the future, Les would like to see the street continue to grow its appeal and reach out to new visitors. “I think we need to continue doing what we’re doing but try to involve and encourage those people who have stopped coming into Bradford. It’s brilliant that we’ve been able to build up a strong regular clientele but it’s also great when a stranger walks in because it means they’re trying something new.”
It’s an inspiring message. After all, it was trying something new that got North Parade to where it is now.
To vote for North Parade in the Great British High Street Awards visit www.thegreatbritishhighstreet.co.uk/high-street-of-the-year-award. Voting closes 13 November.