Belfast Telegraph

Restaurant No 27 Talbot Street shuts with loss of 23 jobs over shock £30,500 bill after gas firm misread meter

By Claire McNeilly

A back-dated gas bill of over £30,000 has been blamed for putting a popular Belfast restaurant out of business with the loss of 23 jobs.

The owner of No 27 Talbot Street said he received a demand for payment from Phoenix for the colossal arrears — due to a company error.

He claims he was told the outstanding balance of £30,500 arose when the company made several mistakes while attempting to take meter readings.

First-time businessman Adrian Lowry told the Belfast Telegraph that his company was going into voluntary liquidation today at 3pm.

“In September/October 2010 Phoenix sent me a bill for £30,500 with no explanation,” Mr Lowry said last night, as he was winding up his affairs.

“It was a complete shock because the gas bill was being paid every quarter when it came in, but Phoenix said the outstanding figure was right.

“They told me they had been reading the meter incorrectly for the last three-and-a-half years, but that I owed them the money nevertheless.”

Mr Lowry said he pointed out that someone had been physically reading the meter since the restaurant opened in the Cathedral Quarter over four years ago.

He claimed he was then told there was a problem with the local meter reading failing to tally with the central computer.

“I filled out a readjustment sheet with regard to my account and they then said I owed them an outstanding amount of £27,000-plus,” he said. “They told me that they knew it was their mistake, but said they had the right to back bill me for up to six years, which I think is ridiculous.

“They’re the ones doing the billing. I paid on time and I paid what I thought was the right bill, but three-and-a-half-years later they tell me it’s not.”

After negotiations, Mr Lowry said Phoenix offered to deduct £2,500 from the bill, as well as giving him three years to pay.

“I couldn’t repay £25,000 in such a short space of time because it’s not just as simple as lifting that amount and paying it back over three years,” he said.

“I have to create an extra £110,000 in revenue to pay that back — and how am I going to do that in these times of austerity when revenues are dropping?”

A final offer from Phoenix of £20,000 repayable over three years was also unacceptable for Mr Lowry, who closed his eatery to the public last Saturday night.

“I couldn’t do anything else. I have a family and a home and I feel as though I was put in a corner,” he said.

“I’ve lost £120,000 of my investment, but, more importantly, 23 people have lost their jobs. I feel depressed for all my suppliers because we don’t have that opportunity now to make money to pay them back for stock.”

A Phoenix Supply spokesman last night said it has not insisted on payment of the debt as a condition of continuing supply.

“We apologise for the miscalculation of this customer’s bill between 2007 and 2010 which was, unfortunately, due to human error,” he said. “We have continued since then, and still continue, to supply gas to the business.

“The gas was used by the business and we have sought to enter into an extended repayment arrangement. We’ve been awaiting a response to our latest offer.”

Top Belfast chef’s amazement over closure of popular venue

By Anne Maguire

A leading chef and restaurateur has reacted with amazement after it emerged that a popular Belfast restaurant will close because of a back-dated £30,500 gas bill.

The owner of No 27 Talbot Street said he received a demand for payment from Phoenix for the colossal arrears because of a company error.

He claims he was told the outstanding balance of £30,500 arose when the company made a series of mistakes while taking meter readings over a prolonged period.

The bad news for the leading eatery comes as many restaurants and the whole hospitality sector struggles across Northern Ireland as the economic downturn continues to take its toll.

Niall McKenna, who is the current chair of the Taste of Ulster industry group as well as owner and chef at the exclusive James Street South restaurant, bar and grill, said it was the first time in his long career that he had heard of a restaurant closing over a gas bill.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: “I find it amazing. I have never heard of someone going bust because they cannot pay a gas bill.”

He said the parties need to meet and talk over the issue.

The leading chef added: “I think there needs to be negotiation here. That’s the key.

“It’s a sad thing to see a restaurateur closing because of a gas bill and I think the two parties need to come together and come to an arrangement.

“There is not a restaurant in Northern Ireland at the minute that is not finding it tough.

“It’s sad to see people losing their jobs — and ultimately this gas company will lose a customer if they do not negotiate with him.”

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