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Bankruptcy pain for food and drink trade

There has been further bad news in the food and drink sector after two publicans and two restaurateurs were listed as bankrupt last week.

Garry McCrory, manager of the licensed U-Tree in Ahoghill, outside Ballymena in Co Antrim submitted a debtors petition while Margaret Lavelle of The Cottage Restaurant in Armagh was served a creditor's petition.

Normal Millar of the Central Bar in picturesque Cushendall on the Antrim Coast received a creditor's petition, as did William Whiteside of McNamara's in Portaferry, Co Down.

Industry experts say that the full effect of December's freak weather conditions and their impact on the licensed trade and eateries is yet to become apparent.

Colin Neill, chief executive of licensed trade support group Pubs of Ulster, said that the situation may worsen as the year goes on.

He added that recent figures show that the licensed trade currently employs 35,000 people in Northern Ireland but that as many as 200 pubs could close within the next 18 months.

"Following a difficult year for the industry however, it is expected that this figure will fall further over the next year, but just how dramatically is not yet known," he said.

"Ongoing pressures such as reduced margins, increased overheads, changes in regulation and the below cost sale of alcohol by supermarkets have made it extremely difficult for pubs to survive.

"The problem is set to continue and we estimate that we will see 150 to 200 pubs close over the next 12 to 18 months, indicating a difficult time for employment in the sector.

"It is also expected that rural areas will suffer the most in terms of job losses and long term unemployment due to a less mobile workforce.

"However, the Government need to do more to help an industry that contributes £1bn to the economy each year and is the source of employment for thousands of people across Northern Ireland."

Whole chains of pubs and restaurants have got into difficulties since the start of the year.

Last month, Castle Street Inns Ltd, which owned around six bars including the Brook Lodge Bar, Becketts and the Blackstaff as well as the Tony Romas restaurant franchise in the south of the city went into administration. All the businesses are still trading.

And four of Belfast's best-known pubs and live venues are on sale for one-fifth of what they were reportedly sold for four years ago.

The Limelight/Katy Daly's and Spring & Airbrake complex on Ormeau Avenue has an asking price of £1.95m.

Offers are invited for £650,000 and over for sister pub Auntie Annie's on the Dublin Road.

The guide prices for the venues are a marked reversal of fortune since 2007, when they were part of a business and pub portfolio sold for a reported £13m by Eamonn McCann to CDC Leisure.