I’ve seen thousands of concerts in the Chicago area since 1973, but my favorite memory may be the night I bought Keith Richards a shot of Jack Daniel’s. The Rolling Stones guitarist was clear as an ice cube, standing across the bar near the stage watching Dr. John perform at the 200-seat Biddy Mulligan’s, 7644 North Sheridan. Richards had come to the gig with Chuck Berry after Berry headlined the June 6, 1986 edition of the Chicago Blues Festival.
But anyone who wandered into Biddy’s between the mid-1970s and 1992 has their own unique memories:
* Blues great Willie Dixon adopted Biddy’s as his musical house club. So did Koko Taylor.
* Phish’s first Chicago gig was April 13, 1991, at Biddy’s.
* The Smashing Pumpkins played Biddy’s on May 13, 1989—a weeknight.
* The late rhythm-and-blues icon and actor Screamin’ Jay Hawkins loved Biddy’s. And he mentored Biddy’s owner Amin “Andy” Lakha during a time of need.
I wrote about Biddy’s a lot for the Chicago Sun-Times. I knew some of the guys in Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows, the underrated soul music outfit that recorded a 1987 live album for Alligator Records in the club. My friends Mike Jordan and the Rockamatics played Biddy’s. On one Saturday afternoon in the early 1980s, when I was living in pre-gentrified Wrigleyville, the old bus belonging to Texas swing fiddler Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown broke down in front of my apartment. I gave Gatemouth a ride to Biddy’s. Somehow Biddy’s was always in my blood.
The incongruity of Biddy’s remains irresistible to me.
I liked Andy Lakha. He was a young immigrant from Pakistan who owned a blues-and-rock club with an Irish name in predominantly Jewish Rogers Park. When he sold Biddy’s he mentored new owner Mike Miller (no relation to the Delilah’s owner of the same name) who had never run a music venue. Miller had left his job as a vice president at Leo Burnett Worldwide in Chicago. Lakha’s story is an important celebration of a New America. In recent months I wondered what happened to him. Social media posts said he had “vanished.”
It took some digging, but I learned that Lakha is now principal and CEO of Fortress Development, a $1.1 billion commercial real estate firm in Bellevue, Washington, ten miles outside of Seattle. Lakha broke ground in 2020 for Avenue Bellevue, a high-end condo-retail-hotel development in the city’s downtown. In August of last year, an Avenue Bellevue condo penthouse under construction sold for just over eight million, a record for the Pacific Northwest, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal. The Avenue Bellevue project will be completed in the summer of 2023.
In the late 1990s Lakha was one of the biggest independent Chevron dealers in America. He built twenty-two gas stations that opened the door into commercial real estate projects with McDonald’s, Walgreens and other corporations. Lakha founded Fortress Development in 2015. But he developed his business acumen by running Biddy Mulligan’s.
“That is what has made me successful now,” he says in a reflective February conversation from his winter home in Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic. “I learned how to build relationships. It was hard, especially in the beginning.”
Lakha takes a thoughtful pause. You can hear the sound of a distant shore. “People didn’t believe in us,” he continues. “There were a lot of stigmas. About once a week I would hear, ‘Go back to your country.’ But we got accepted. We proved ourselves to be educated, business-oriented people who contribute to society. I look back at Biddy’s as my favorite time of my life. I was just in my teens and early twenties. All of these [music] legends influenced me. I talked to them. My heroes were Black. I never grew up with any kind of prejudice.”
Lakha came to Chicago in 1979 at the age of seventeen. He was born in Bombay, India (now Mumbai), the youngest of the family’s four children. His older brother, Salim, was a graphic designer in downtown Chicago and is now a Seattle-based stockbroker and private investment banker. His sister, Yasmin, operates four gas stations in Seattle and two Popeyes restaurants in Los Angeles. His eldest sister, Narmin, is retired.
When Andy was three years old, the family moved to Karachi, Pakistan, for better business opportunities. The family’s father, Shamsuddin Lakha, was in retail in the iron and steel business. He died in 2020 of complications from COVID-19. He was eighty-six years old. Lakha graduated high school in Karachi, but enrolled in Senn High School in Chicago for his senior year. He then spent two years studying at Truman College and one year studying business and accounting at the University of Illinois Chicago. He did not obtain a college degree.
Lakha’s first job in America was as a busboy at The Pinnacle restaurant, the revolving dining room atop the Holiday Inn, 644 North Lake Shore Drive. “It was hard to compete with the Mexican busboys,” Lakha says. “They were big and strong. I was skinny and carrying big trays. I’d go there right after school at Senn. The wages were nothing.”
Yasmin is six years older than her brother. In an interview from Seattle, she remembers her brother’s act of bravery in 1979, when she was living in an apartment in Pakistan with her husband and nine-month-old son. Her son was playing in a crib and Yasmin was cooking in the kitchen. “My neighbor stopped by for a chat, my door suddenly shut and I was locked out of my apartment!,” she says. “I panicked and started crying. Everything was still on the stove. I could not reach my husband or building manager to let me back in. Back then, there was no fire department or emergency line to call. Just then my brother Amin [Andy] stopped by. My apartment was on the third floor and about forty-five feet from the ground. My brother made a quick decision and started climbing the drainage pipe on the side of the building. Although this was dangerous, he was able to make his way up and jump onto the balcony. It was risky, but he saved my son.”
Yasmin came to Chicago two years after her brother’s arrival. “Omigosh, he was the star at Biddy Mulligan’s,” she continues. “He had so much energy and booked all those bands. We never heard of blues bands in Pakistan. He ended up on a first-name basis with many of them.”
Biddy Mulligan’s was up and spinning when Lakha landed in Chicago. During the mid-1970s the Chicago blues pianist Bob Riedy (1946-2020) booked the club. Riedy was the leader of the Bob Riedy Chicago Blues Band, which included harmonica player Carey Bell, Jimmy Rogers [Muddy Waters] on guitar, bassist Jim Wydra and drummer Sam Lay. Check out their magnificent 1973 Rounder Records album, “Lake Michigan Ain’t No River.” Riedy’s band backed acts like Eddy Clearwater, Magic Slim and Koko Taylor at Biddy’s.
Lakha, his father, Yasmin and her husband partnered to buy the business from Chicago bluegrass musician Chip Covington. “The place has been a bar since the late 1940s,” Covington says. His father, Thorpe Covington III, owned the building. Thorpe sold plastic film to meatpackers like Oscar Mayer and Swift & Company.
“[The bar] was once called the Captain’s Chair,” Covington says. “He bought this crappy building around 1966. At that time the bar was called The Store North, with that Gay Nineties theme where the bartenders wore bow ties and elastic arm bands. We busted out walls upstairs. There was a massage parlor upstairs. I was a freshman or sophomore at Evanston High School.”
The bar was then owned by former Chicago salesmen Wrenn Nelson and John Bezazian. Covington was woodshedding with a bluegrass band in Nebraska when he learned they wanted to sell the bar. He recalls, “They booked occasional folk music around 1974 before Riedy got involved. I didn’t know anything about the blues. My dad did not want me to be in the business. I’m not sure when it became Biddy Mulligan’s, but I became a minority shareholder in 1978.”
When Covington wanted to diversify the musical bookings, Riedy quit. Covington took over the bookings in late 1979 and bought out his partners in the early 1980s. He brought in Kansas City jazz pianist Jay McShann and the Chicago-based Redd Holt Trio jazz-soul group. Alligator Records owner Bruce Iglauer helped him book New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair, and Covington took a chance on rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins. “Nobody came for Carl Perkins, it was a disaster,” he says.
“The thing that did it for me was [the great Chicago soul singer] Otis Clay,” Covington continues. The late, effervescent blues drummer Casey Jones told Covington about Clay and his band, the Chicago Fire. “I didn’t know Otis. But Casey had played with everybody—Albert Collins [Johnny Winter, Otis Rush]. He said, ‘There’s only two words you need to know: Otis. Clay.’ He gave me his number and that was it.”
On another special night in 1978 Buddy Guy and Junior Wells played a command performance for the band Journey. Omnipresent Chicago music photographer Paul Natkin was in the room. “They were shooting a documentary where every member in Journey got to fulfill a bucket-list goal,” Natkin says. “They were playing at the Rosemont Horizon. [Journey guitarist-vocalist] Neal Schon’s goal was to play onstage with Buddy Guy. Biddy Mulligan’s hired them. I don’t know if the documentary came out. It might have been the first time I went to Biddy’s. Whenever Journey came to town, I’d hang out and shoot them.”
Evanston had been a dry city until 1972, and Biddy’s carved out a destination niche for nickel pitchers of beer on Tuesday nights. Darts were a popular pastime. Covington hired Sue Miller (no relation to Mike Miller) as a server in 1979. She went on to run the West End music room on West Armitage and the fabled Lounge Ax in Lincoln Park. In 1978, Covington met his future wife, Sari, who is from Finland, at the club; they were married in 1979. In 1981 the Covingtons relocated to Helsinki, where Covington found a job as a soundman for film companies.
Meanwhile, Lakha was a blues fan who was hanging out at Biddy’s. “In Pakistan, nobody listened to the blues,” he says. “It wasn’t on the radio. I had records. There was somebody in our building who had gone to the U.S. and came back with a bunch of LPs. Muddy Waters. B.B. King. Howlin’ Wolf. I would go to his house and listen to his music. Mostly blues with a little bit of jazz.”
When Lakha learned that Covington was selling Biddy Mulligan’s, he talked his father into becoming the lead partner. He had to; Lakha was still underage. “I hope it won’t get me in trouble,” he says. “I’m assuming it’s too late.” Lakha and his parents lived in an apartment building on Wilson Avenue, a block west of Lake Shore Drive.
“Andy was a young man,” Covington says, choosing his words carefully. Well, he was underage. “There you go,” Covington continues. “I sat down with his dad before I knew Andy existed. Andy was a vigorous young man.”
Lakha says, “I went to my dad and said, ‘Dad, I want to take you out.’ My dad said, ‘Great! I’m spending time with my son. My dad was looking for small-business opportunities. He had sold the house in Pakistan. We were middle-class. My dad wasn’t going to drive a taxi or do things that most other immigrants were doing. So I took my dad to Biddy’s on a Friday night. It was packed. There was a blues band playing. My dad enjoyed Scotch and whiskey. He had a couple of drinks. The next day I asked him if he had a good time. He said, ‘Yeah I had a great time!’ I said, ‘That’s good to hear, because I’m buying this club.’”
Besides having some money, his father had some smarts. He asked his son exactly how he planned to buy Biddy Mulligan’s. Lakha had been working and saving money. “I come from a family of many generations of businesspeople,” he explains. “We are entrepreneurs.” Lakha proposed that he make his father a fifty-percent partner with two provisions: He needed $30,000. And being underage, he needed his father’s name for the liquor license. His father agreed and they recruited Lakha’s sister and her husband. “We were not rich,” he says. “We had to pool our money together.” The family put down a total of $45,000 and paid the rest off in large installments over the next five years. “It was just the business and the lease,” Lahka says. “I believe it was $175,000 total. My brother-in-law put down most of the cash he brought to America. They trusted a nineteen-year-old who had only been in America for two years. They trusted that I was going to make a success out of it. They would have been on the streets had I failed.
“I’m forever thankful to them for believing in me.”
Lakha never bothered to change the club’s name. Biddy Mulligan was the fictitious name of a prohibitionist in Ireland and a popular character of Irish comedian-singer Jimmy O’Dea. In the 1930s, O’Dea dressed in drag as a gritty Biddy Mulligan in Dublin. Over the years, several bars in Ireland named themselves Biddy Mulligan’s. “It’s a nice name,” says Lakha, who has traveled to Ireland.
The legal capacity of Biddy Mulligan’s was 197. Lakha remodeled the club in 1983. He raised the stage and made it bigger, imported a new sound system and added improved sightlines. “The fire marshal was a customer,” Lakha says. “He would drink free. On a packed night, we would have 450 people. Sometimes I would take out all the tables and chairs. It depended on how good the act was, how much I was paying the band and how many people I needed. I was booking bands that were way more expensive than capacity.”
For example, in 1984: Los Lobos (their first Chicago gig was broadcast on WXRT-FM), Willie Dixon.
1987: Jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron (February and August), War (May and August).
1988: Interplanetary jazz-blues artist Sun Ra and his Arkestra, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Texas singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, Bo Diddley.
Chicago blues great Liz Mandeville has vivid memories of Biddy’s. Why not? During the mid-1980s, her band Liz Mandeville and the Supernaturals opened for legends like Sam and Dave, Junior Walker, Albert King, David Bromberg and others at Biddy’s. “Sam and Dave and Junior Walker were huge influences on the sound we were trying to create at that time,” Mandeville says. “We had a blues band but we were more into Memphis soul, Atlantic [Records], that kind of thing. We were a natural to open for that kind of band. And we were just green kids.”
Norm Winer orchestrated the 1984 Los Lobos broadcast when he was program director at WXRT-FM. “You know how black-and-white cartoons showed characters like dogs, mice or whatever creatures pulling up to a small building?” Winer asks. “They’d pile out of their cars and walk into the building. As it filled up, the building would get larger and larger like an arena. If there was music inside, the building would move in time to the music. The cartoon creatures were having fun, dancing and throwing their partners through their legs.
“That was the Los Lobos show at Biddy Mulligan’s. To me, they’re still America’s greatest live band. When the show ended and we emptied out onto Sheridan Road, the building got small again. I was not on hallucinogens. Every moment inside that small club when the band was playing its brains out was one of the greatest musical experiences I have had.”
Mandeville says, “The room was long and narrow. Right in the center of the room was a big zero-shaped bar. Tables were on the walls to the south. The stage went along the length of the whole north side of the room. It was ridiculous. The room always looked packed. I was there all the time. I went to see the Fabulous Thunderbirds there. I’m standing next to [Chicago blues guitarist] Steve Arvey and I’m screaming like it was the Beatles.”
During his very early years with the Bulls, Michael Jordan dropped in to see blues guitarist Son Seals. “Walter Payton came to see Albert King and so did Roxy Music, on a different night,” Lakha says.
“I booked John Lee Hooker and Robert Cray opened. It was Robert’s first appearance in Chicago. I paid him $350. Albert Collins would play [guitar] outside, sometimes stopping traffic on Sheridan Road. I didn’t know Keith Richards and Chuck Berry were coming. They just showed up. I had already booked Dr. John. The Chicago Blues Festival said they’d like Dr. John to perform late afternoon, early evening, before my show. They said they’d give a police escort from the club to the festival and then bring him back from the festival.”
Lakha agreed with one shrewd caveat. “I told Dr. John to make sure at the end of his set to announce he would be playing at Biddy Mulligan’s tonight. And he did. And a lot of people showed up. There was a big line outside. The majority of the people always came for the experience. It was so up-close to see these legends. For example, I had an exclusive with Willie Dixon. He would play the weekend before he went on tour. Basically it was a rehearsal.
“The Neville Brothers said it was their favorite place in Chicago. They said Biddy’s reminded them of Tipitina’s in New Orleans.” Winer adds, “You were diagonally across from the stage when you walked in from the Sheridan side. It was a long, narrow room. Once you were in the vicinity of the bar you were really close to the stage with a great view. I saw a lot of bands there.”
Lakha’s nascent years at Biddy’s were about building relationships with most of his talent. “Los Lobos sent me Christmas cards as long as I lived in Chicago,” he says. “I was also very aggressive in promoting my club. I was not on Rush Street or in Lincoln Park. My club was based on the band I booked. We didn’t have a tourist audience. There was nothing near us.”
There were other live-music clubs down the street from Biddy Mulligan’s. Minstrel’s was a popular roots music venue with a 4am liquor license near the since-razed Granada Theatre, 6427 North Sheridan. Misfits, at 6459 North Sheridan, was another club that booked popular Chicago acts, like the ska band Heavy Manners and the underrated blue-eyed soul of Nathan Coates. “People were passionate about Biddy’s,” Lakha says. “You saw it. And it was my life. Biddy’s was open five days a week, and the other two days I’d be at another club checking out music. I didn’t see any other place that had the noise and excitement of Biddy’s.”
Covington remembered Biddy’s as a neighborhood joint with lots of regulars. “Get to know the band,” he says. “[Howlin’ Wolf guitarist] Hubert Sumlin used to take off his shoes playing with Eddie Shaw. That’s the vibe I wanted. Shoot some darts. Become part of the room. Purely romantic. Andy had a strong business approach and opened it up quite a bit. He started booking some big names.”
Meat Loaf and his band headlined Biddy’s on a Monday night in 1988 or 1989; Lakha isn’t sure of which year. “I knew his agent,” he says. “I know it was a Monday night. The club was usually closed on Monday. He wanted me to do a full stage setup. It was up to the road manager if Meat Loaf would play. I ended up putting extensions on the stage. It was all about the excitement of having the band play. It wasn’t about making any money. The road manager approved it. We had between 500 and 600 people that night, not at one time but in and out. I’ll never forget when Meat Loaf walked into the club his first words were, ‘Oh my God.’ It was the smallest club he had played in years. He had a big band with backup singers. At the end of the night he was really happy and we got drunk together.”
Lakha formed a spellbinding friendship with the outrageous rhythm-and-blues singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins after he booked him for a March 1986 gig at Biddy’s. Hawkins pulled out all the stops. He brought shrunken heads, electric pants and his smoking cane called Henry the Skull.
Lakha put up some of his acts at a suspiciously modest Sheridan Road motel just south of Biddy’s. I met Hawkins there once before his gig. We talked about him emerging from his coffin in the 1978 movie “American Hot Wax,” and the 1984 Jim Jarmusch film “Stranger Than Paradise” that featured the Hawkins hit “I Put a Spell on You.” (In 1989, Jarmusch cast Hawkins as a night clerk in “Mystery Train.”)
Hawkins confidently told me how he planned to connect with his Chicago audience: “I’ll reach into their chests, fumble with their emotions, put their minds in neutral, pick their choice of emotion and have them walking sideways. I’ll have [stuffed] snakes, bats, lizards, [human] shrunken heads and alligator wine.” Hawkins fancied himself an opera singer, and later that night at Biddy’s he beautifully destroyed his hits like “Alligator Wine,” “Constipation Blues” and “I Put a Spell on You.”
“He didn’t have a band,” Lakha says. “I don’t know if he fired the band or whatever. So I put a band together to rehearse with him. I ended up booking him at different clubs around the Midwest. I would pick him up at the airport. Screamin’ Jay was a great person. To be honest with you, I was having friction with my dad. My dad was putting a lot of pressure on me to make profits on the club. To me, it was also about the passion. My dad didn’t like that. It was also when the boy is turning into the man and the man is still the master of the house. I didn’t move out of the house until 1985. So for four years we were partners at Biddy’s and living in the same house. Think about that. I was so upset with my dad I wanted to change my last name.
“Screamin’ Jay talked to me and gave me the wisdom of life. He became a father figure. Screamin’ Jay told me about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. His crowd was white, Black and punk rockers and blues lovers. They would bow at Screamin’ Jay. He was a legend who was down to earth. He was an amazing piano player. He was not crazy. We got close.”
Hawkins died in February 2000 after suffering an aneurysm in Paris. He was seventy years old. Not long before his death, Hawkins told his biographer Maral Nigolian that he had fathered at least fifty-seven children. In the summer of 2000, she established the now-defunct website Jayskids.com and in less than a year thirty-three people had claimed Hawkins as their father.
Very few people in the Seattle area know of Lakha’s life as the owner of an iconic Chicago club. “Just my family and close friends,” Lakha says. “Biddy’s was a phase of life that was different.” Lakha sold Biddy’s to a twentysomething Chicago businessman in late 1989. The new operation floundered and after a few months he sold the club back to Lakha. “I had one more amazing year,” he says.
“If there wasn’t an interesting act there, the club didn’t have a natural draw. We started losing some acts. Clubs in the Near North and Lincoln Park were opening.” Buddy Guy’s club opened in 1989, House of Blues in 1996 and even Lakha’s old friend Koko Taylor opened a club in 1995. Lakha says, “You can’t do the same thing for thirty, forty years. So I sold it again.”
Lakha sold to Chicagoans Mike and Colleen Miller. They owned Biddy Mulligan’s from June 1990 through March 1992. Mike Miller was a Leo Burnett vice president when he quit to buy the club on a lark. He had never seen a show there. His wife Colleen says, “He bought the club, then asked me—his new girlfriend—to quit my job [as a sales assistant at Rolling Stone magazine] and book the joint.”
Colleen turned the volume up from what Lakha was doing. She reeled in Phish, Blues Traveler, Tito Puente and more. Colleen became one of the best booking agents in the city. “Colleen’s feeling was that we had to get a little more modern,” Mike Miller says in an interview from Cleveland. “We started losing the blues business. Colleen wasn’t interested in some of the classic rock acts Andy did. She also subscribed to Pollstar [magazine], which changed her whole life. You could track tours and chase bands who were in the area.”
Like the jam band Phish. Colleen recalls, “Phish was playing a nearby show and we were offered a routing gig. Of course we pounced on the opportunity. They had been out a few years and already had a strong following. Biddy’s was an underplay for them, so it sold out quickly.” The general admission ticket was six dollars in 1991.
The Millers sold Biddy’s to a pair of sisters from the North Shore. The bar hadn’t even been on the market. Covington laughs and says, “The women from the northern suburbs in their exercise outfits would come down and say, ‘This is going to be fun.’ They tried to open a party bar with rock ’n’ roll stuff that would impress their husbands. It was weird. They shut it down and walked away.
“I got emotional because that’s where I met my wife,” Covington says. “I took back the club. That was around ninety-four. My father sold the building in 1995 or early ninety-six. I put a lot of money into it, but It was open for less than a year. I did [Chicago soul singer] Cicero Blake. Why should I book pop acts when there are people in town from Mississippi who can’t even find a gig? But the best things were Otis Clay and my wife. It’s a beautiful story, how blues came to the North Side. It’s a real piece of Chicago history.
“Back when we started, people were high, but it was mellow. Maybe some quaaludes. Or nice barbiturates. They weren’t jacked, doing crack, walking around with their mouths open and this and that. North Shore people used to go to eat on Howard Street.”
Mandeville, who lived in Rogers Park, remembers how parking was minimal around Biddy’s and she had to carry her gear down the street. “The neighborhood was not the nicest,” she says. “It’s called Juneway Terrace. It used to be called ‘The Jungle.’ There were liquor stores and pawn shops. You’d be walking to the club with everything you owned. All your money had been spent on a guitar or amplifier and you’re defending it with your life. But we never got robbed there.”
By 1992 Mike Miller had returned to marketing and Colleen remained in the music business. She was hired by Chris Schuba when he did music at the since-demolished Coronet Theatre in Evanston. She became concert director at the Old Town School of Folk Music and program director for City Winery Chicago. Today, Colleen and Mike Miller are owners of the Music Box Supper Club in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, which they opened in 2014. Mike Miller’s grandfather was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1932.
As part of the purchase agreement under a consulting contract, Lakha taught the Millers how to run the club. “Andy was an aggressive businessperson,” recalls Mike Miller. “He also was an aggressive booking agent. He taught us that what you pay a band is one-hundred-percent negotiable. We would have paid it if they quoted a price. But he was very aggressive in negotiating with bands: how much of it was guaranteed, how much of it was based on ticket sales. I definitely saw he was a go-getter.”
Mandeville recalls, “Andy was a brutal taskmaster to work for. He didn’t want to pay anything. We were paying bills and living on our own. He would yell, ‘Exposure! Exposure!’ I finally said, ‘Andy, people die of exposure. You gotta pay me some money.’ I may have gotten him to pay me $300 on the most exceptional night of my life, a cassette-release party. It was wall-to-wall people. I got some money off the door.”
The Millers did a deep clean of the old smoky club. A smart pivot point was to introduce a refrigerated beer line. “It was new technology then,” Mike Miller says. “Andy was part of the team in our first couple months and I shared sales with him. He was like, ‘Wow! Beer sales have increased.’ Because he was serving warm beer. It was a recommendation I got from my Budweiser sales rep.”
Is Miller surprised at Lakha’s later success? “I’m really not. Andy was ambitious. I kind of knew I overpaid in the first week. We were just getting to know him. He asked me to give him a ride to pick up his new car. It was a BMW. Uh-oh. When he sold, I asked him why he was selling and he said, ‘I want to go on to bigger things.’ He was very direct about it.”
Lakha says, “I never saw myself staying in the music business. I was burned out. In the music business, you never know what’s going to happen. A van breaks down. The drummer shows up with a broken hand. It’s a lot of stress. I wanted to try something new. I wanted to do something bigger.”
Lakha moved to Los Angeles and then Seattle. And after selling Biddy’s, Mike Miller returned to marketing. He started a company in the real estate industry, selling a radio transmitter that real estate agents could use to sell homes. Covington promoted music in Scandinavia and started a Scandinavian bluegrass festival that is still going on. He and Siri raised three children and he worked as a marketing manager in the Chicago graphics industry.
Biddy’s became a Jamaican cafe before closing for good in 1995.
Today the historic building still sits empty.
But Lakha continues to build. He established Fortress Development to develop Avenue Bellevue, which he has called “the biggest and most important project of my life.” The project incorporates two towers of a combined 141 luxury condos in one tower and 224 condos in the other tower, plus retail, fine dining and a 208-room hotel in the heart of downtown Bellevue.
Lakha plans to develop the Pacific Northwest’s first-ever InterContinental Hotel on the property. The condos start at $1.3 million for a one-bedroom and $2.1 million for a two-bedroom. He’s looking to revisit his Chicago entertainment roots with an upscale supper club reminiscent of the popular Delilah at the Wynn Las Vegas. Lakha plans to incorporate a Rolls-Royce house car with a driver for residents and hotel guests. His project template: a European town square.
The busy real estate developer flies to meetings and vacation spots in his mid-sized Challenger 300 private jet. “I got it after 9/11,” he says matter-of-factly of an aircraft that costs $13 million or more. “There was a lot of racial profiling. It was hard for brown people. One time [in Seattle] I was arrested and put in handcuffs but released right away. I said, ‘To hell with it,’ and got the plane.”
The former Biddy Mulligan’s owner has had the luck of the Irish. When he’s been down, he comes back up. Lakha began planning his project in 2015, before Amazon.com, Inc. announced in 2020 that it was bringing 25,000 jobs to downtown Bellevue as an expansion of its Puget Sound headquarters. “People say, ‘Are you prophetic or are you good?,” he says. “You can be as good as good can be, but luck has played a big component in my success. I knew where the city was going. I’ve been blessed.”
It wasn’t always that way. By mid-1991 Lakha had fallen in love with an accountant in Los Angeles. It was smokestack lightning. They married five months later. “She was like me,” he says. “She came to America from Pakistan at age seventeen, but she grew up in L.A. I was going to come back to Chicago, but my wife didn’t like the cold. During that time, people started talking about Seattle. Summer is beautiful in Seattle. I love the nature. I decided to start all over again.”
Andy and Afshan Lakha were married for twenty-eight years. They raised two daughters in Seattle; Henna, twenty-four, and Fainan, twenty-seven. Henna is an art student at the University of Washington. Fainan is legislative director and former campaign manager of New York State Senator Jabari Brisport and serves on the steering committee of New York City Democratic Socialists of America. Brisport is the first openly gay member of the New York state legislature. Fainan obtained a liberal arts degree studying philosophy and ethnic studies at Columbia University in New York.
Besides starting a family, Andy also entered the gas-station game in Seattle. “It’s a profitable business,” he says. “In those days, oil companies were giving incentives. If you built from ground up or rebranded a station and did a long-term supply agreement, they would give you half a million dollars and amortize it over ten years. I saw it as an opportunity. I signed up with Chevron, Arco and BP.” Lakha started Emerald City Construction to build his own stations. “I wanted to control what I did,” he says.
Lakha built gas stations and convenience centers in the Puget Sound area within a fifty-mile radius of Seattle. He operated them under Puget Sound Stations, Inc. from 1992 to 2003. “A lot of them were Chevrons,” he says. “I leased the first station with some money from Biddy Mulligan’s when I moved to Seattle from Los Angeles.” Lakha then started building his own gas stations. He explains, “They were able to pay me $400,000 to $700,000 to build the gas stations. I used that to leverage and grow. You can’t build twenty-two that fast. The first one I built from ground up, I sold for a $900,000 profit. That was 1996. That was a lot of money then. That catapulted me into commercial real estate.”
Many of his gas stations were on prime corner lots in the booming Seattle area. Seattle itself added 47,000 residents during the 1990s, a nine-percent population increase that doubled its growth rate in the 1980s. Lakha started getting calls from Walgreens, Jack in the Box and others who asked about buying his property. That opened more real estate gates. “In 1997, I bought my first property, a little strip mall, to diversify,” he says. “I liked real estate. You buy something and you grow it. By 2007 I had twenty-one shopping centers. They were all separate LLCs. I came to Seattle with $250,000 when I bought my first station. By 2007 my asset base was $1.7 billion. It was crazy. I learned how to create wealth in commercial real estate. I would buy properties, I would upgrade them, sell them and buy something bigger and better. I was in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Georgia and Tennessee.”
Lakha was knocked out by the great recession in 2008-09. His asset values crashed. “A beggar on the street was worth more than me,” he says. “My liabilities were higher than my assets. Commercial real estate took a beating.” Lakha says he methodically rebuilt over the next four years by selling some properties, keeping some of the better ones and restructuring loans with lenders. Eventually the market came back.
That was until Andy and Afshan separated in 2017 and divorced in 2019. In the divorce settlement, Lakha’s ex-wife got their Bellevue house and fifty-two-foot yacht M/Y Henna, which was named after their daughter. He sold Shalimar, his other $10 million yacht. Afshan also received $30 million of their art collection. “We were avid art collectors,” he says. “Contemporary, American, German. She got a nine-figure settlement.” But Lakha still had big plans for Avenue Bellevue. His company started construction in January 2020.
Things changed again. COVID-19 hit big in March 2020.
“The financing went away, everything went away,” he said. “It was a billion-dollar project with basically a big ball rolling down a mountain. I wanted to keep going, but it was hard because COVID kept going a lot longer than anyone expected. By the end of 2020, I was basically out of money. I had $20,000 left to my name. I had gone through three big bumps in the road: the recession, the divorce and COVID.
“I contacted a local billionaire who I had come to know in social circles in Seattle—I’m involved with charities and the arts. My wife was a board member of the Seattle Art Museum and a trustee for the Pacific Ñorthwest Ballet. We are also big donors at the Seattle Infectious Disease Clinic—he gave me a loan for $70 million so I could keep going until I got financing. That saved me. Without his investment, I would have lost everything.”
His sister Yasmin watched her brother endure the recent bumps in the road. They have dinner regularly in the Seattle area. “He works very hard,” she says. “And secondly, he has a lot of good luck.”
It wasn’t until April 2021 that Lakha’s Fortress Development obtained $700 million of financing. The project’s architects include Hirsch Bedner Associates, the largest hospitality design firm in the world (Hilton London Heathrow Airport Hotel, Four Seasons Hotel Singapore), and Seattle-based Weber Thompson. Fortress received the largest construction loan in Bellevue’s history. “We were able to get them to invest in our project during COVID,” Lakha says. Fortress has a staff of twenty, plus 120 consultants working on the project. Lakha says that later this year up to 1,000 people will be working on the job site.
“This is a place that I imagined, a project I created from scratch,” he says. “It will be a shining star of the West Coast. It’s about making your vision come true. Everything I have now is because of what I learned at Biddy Mulligan’s. I learned about relationships. When I started at Biddy’s, there was a booking agent I called one day. He put me on hold. I waited for about fifteen minutes and his secretary came on. I asked where he was. She said he went out to lunch. I’ll never forget that. I was a young guy from Pakistan and not worth his time. I learned how to treat people, how to build a good team, and let them do what they do best. You’re constantly learning.
“It can be a very painstaking thing, but it makes your vision reality.”
Dave Hoekstra is a Chicago author, radio host and documentarian. His latest book “The Camper Book (A Celebration of a Moveable American Dream) is available on Chicago Review Press. He co-produced the documentary “The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement,” nominated for a 2001 Chicago/Midwest Emmy Award. Dave was a 2013 recipient of the Studs Terkel Community Media Award. His work can be found at davehoekstra.com.