Belfast Bubbacue restaurant boss raps rising cost of city centre rents
One of Belfast's most successful restaurant entrepreneurs has said the city is starting to "price itself out" with soaring rents and high rates.
John Blisard, who masterminded the success of the Mexican fast-food Boojum chain, is in negotiations with landlords over plans to expand his new venture, Bubbacue, which specialises in slow-cooked, barbecued meats like pulled pork and beef brisket.
"We have identified a unit in the city centre and we hope to be open this side of Christmas, depending on how long it takes to agree the lease," said John (45), who sold the Boojum chain last year.
"It's become difficult to find the right unit at the right price. Belfast is quite saturated with restaurants and people are competing for space.
"The population of the city centre has not really increased that much so I'm really encouraged when I hear about more apartments and student housing being built in central Belfast. That will really help to drive business and create a vibrant city centre."
John is also keen to open up branches of Bubbacue in regional towns but has been rethinking his plans to expand into the Republic.
"The Brexit vote has certainly made us take a step back to think about this," he said. "But the bigger barrier to opening in Dublin city centre, which I'm keen to do, is that Dublin is extortionate right now in terms of rents.
"Even restaurant owners with failing businesses are asking for up to €120,000 (£104,000) as a premium to hand over premises because they have extraction systems and planning permission already in place. It's happening in Belfast, too, although the sums are smaller. But restaurant owners in the city centre are demanding up to £30,000. It's just a symptom of the market because of high demand, but it adds to the costs of opening a new place."
The original Bubbacue, in Callender Street near City Hall, employs 21 people and has recently been extensively refurbished.
John said: "Instead of traditional restaurant service, it's now more like the Boojum style where customers queue up, choose what they want and watch it being made up, before eating their meal here or taking it away. We've had a very positive response and a significant uplift in trade."
And the restaurant now has its own beer, Bubbabrew, developed by Belfast's Boundary Brewery.
"It's great to build these relationships with local suppliers," said John. "Our meat comes from Crosskeys butchers in Randalstown and is all local. We're able to explain how we want our meat butchered and the cuts that we want."
John, who moved here from Philadelphia with his Co Down-born wife, Karen, in 2007, enjoyed huge success with his Boojum chain.
He added: "I'm working on an idea for a new food business based on a different type of American food. I think it's a good possibility but I'm keeping it under wraps for now. Bubbacue opened in 2012 but I had been working on the recipes and experimenting with meat smoking techniques for years before that.
"Whatever comes next, it has to be right and it has to make financial sense."