Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland restaurant sector suffers blow as BBQ chain shuts

By Emma Deighan

The Northern Ireland restaurant scene has taken another battering as barbecue restaurant chain Bubbacue announced its closure, just months after its owners said they would expand into the Republic following a £400,000 loan.

Weekly Business Digest Newsletter

This week's business news headlines, directly to your inbox every Tuesday.

The news was confirmed on Bubbacue's Facebook page yesterday after a Creditors' Voluntary Liquidation (CVL) noticed was placed in the Belfast Telegraph on Friday.

The notice detailed the insolvency practitioners Keenan CF's upcoming Bubbacue creditors' meeting at its premises in Belfast, where the "terms on which the liquidators are to be remunerated" would be agreed.

The news marks yet another dent in a sector hit with the closure of the acclaimed Bull and Ram Restaurants in Belfast and Ballynahinch as well as the Moody Boar in Armagh.

And it comes after the owners of Bubbacue, John and Karen Blisard, who were the original founders of Boojum before selling it to brothers Andrew and David Maxwell, received a £400,000 Growth Loan Fund to expand its operations here and in the Republic.

The loan came from a £50m pot that provides finance to established NI SMEs seeking to expand. It is provided by Invest NI and private investors, NI Local Government Officers' Superannuation Committee (NILGOSC).

When the Blisards received the loan they were celebrating a 40% increase in turnover thanks to the successful trading of their Botanic Avenue premises in June last year.

And the owners said the loan would help towards the opening of a third restaurant on the north coast as well as a chain in the Republic.

At the time Neil McCabe, senior investment manager at WhiteRock Capital Partners, which manages the Growth Loan Fund, said: "There are ambitious business plans ahead for Bubbacue with the owners hoping to gain a major foothold in the Irish market.

"We were delighted to have been able to help support the launch of their second restaurant and were very impressed with the food and service that they provided for over 100 guests at our recent corporate event.

"We look forward to following the company's future growth."

John Blisard said he had hoped to open a branch in Dublin by next month but yesterday customers were faced with a closure announcement that read: "Regretfully, Bubbacue is now officially closed. We want to thank all of our amazing employees and customers for all of their support over the years. It has been a pleasure serving slow smoked barbecue to Belfast."

It is believed that around 35 staff members across both restaurants are affected by the closure.

Restaurant critic Joris Minne said: "It's very sad to see quality restaurants close their doors in such quick succession. The sector appears to be in rude health in larger conurbations and population centres.

"Small margins show you how vulnerable restaurants can be to rent increases, produce price fluctuations and the general consumer confidence of its customer base which may impact volumes."

Joel Neill, operations director at Hospitality Ulster, the trade organisation for the restaurant and pub sector, said: "The food and beverage sector really is struggling with tight margins.

"Hospitality in general is really squeezed with the increase in the national minimum wage and rate hikes.

"What appears to be a healthy and busy business can struggle because of all those overheads it's hard to actually make money."

Mr Neill said Hospitality Ulster is continually lobbying to "reduce the cost of doing business".

"It's a competitive market and when you're based in Northern Ireland you are in competition with the Republic," he added.

"We would be in favour of a reduction in VAT which would create a more competitive environment for business in Northern Ireland to grow, and thereby boost the wider economy."

Early last month the building which houses Bubbacue's Botanic outlet went up for sale for £800,000. The 4,200 sq ft building was let in its entirety to Bubbacue on a 10-year "no tenant break options" term at an initial rental of £55,000 per annum but the sale has since been withdrawn from the market.

John Blisard moved to Northern Ireland from Philadelphia with his Co Down-born wife Karen in 2007 when he opened Boojum on Botanic Avenue. The business was sold in July 2015.

Belfast Telegraph