Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Has the fizz gone forever from Ulster pub sector?

Belfast's Botanic Inn
Belfast's Botanic Inn

With signs of improvement in the economy, thanks to the Ulster Bank/ Markit purchasing managers' index and relatively cheerful data on the housing market from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, we could be forgiven for wondering whether times have changed for business journalists.

We've grown used to negative stories, to poring over Friday's bankruptcy notices to establish who's the latest property developer to fall into difficulty.

Company administrations have become further bread and butter for business journalists, and in hindsight, there's no doubt that the demise last November of construction firm Patton, and May's administration of Botanic Inns Ltd and parent company Kurkova, were the most shocking.

Such companies seep into everyone's consciousness – the frequent sight of the Patton Fit-Out livery, for example, or the familiarity most of us have with Botanic Inns through their famous pubs, most particularly the King's Head and The Bot.

Botanic Inns group always had a panache and self-confidence, evidenced particularly in The Fly on Lower Crescent. For a time in the early 2000s, it was the only place in town for well-heeled 20 and 30-somethings to be seen on a Friday or Saturday night.

Even the staff of the Fly became an institution, and were required to dance haphazardly on the pub's grand staircase at the end of a night. To this day, it can still be surprising to discover how many of today's movers and shakers (and indeed business journalists) did themselves move and shake on the stairs at the end of a night's shift in The Fly.

The Fly is now under the management of the Horatio Group, which itself is led by former Botanic Inns Group managing director Stephen Magorrian. There are five other pubs which are also under Horatio's control after a deal with administrators, though it remains to be seen what will happen to the Kurkova venues.

They could be sold to smaller operators so that we may never see the like of the Botanic Inns group and its buoyancy again – but only time, and the vagaries of the pub sale market, will tell.

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