Wetherspoon reinvesting in Northern Ireland despite sale of five pubs to rival, says boss
Predicted slowdown in sales won't change plans
Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin has said the pub chain will "look again" at Northern Ireland locations such as Londonderry and Coleraine, where it sold bars last year.
Mr Martin, who was educated here, spoke out as a trading update warned that the group would be stung by high costs in the second half of the year, with a slowdown in sales additionally expected.
The firm said higher wages and rates, as well as a £2m hit from the apprenticeship levy, had left it cautious for the coming 12 months.
But former Campbell College pupil Mr Martin told this paper the anticipated slowdown would have no impact on the company's local plans.
Last year, the business sold five of its nine pubs here to the home-grown Granny Annie's Group, leaving it with four bars, in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Newtownards and Lisburn.
It is planning to open another two venues in Belfast, in the city centre's Royal Avenue and in a disused Methodist church on University Road.
Planning permission has been granted for the city centre bar, but as yet not the other one.
Mr Martin refused to reveal how much Wetherspoon made from selling the bars to Granny Annie's, which is based in Limavady and operated by brothers Willis and Ryan McLaughlin.
"I can't say how much we sold the five pubs for as it's up to the buyer to tell you, but what I can say is that what we plan to spend in Northern Ireland is more than we got from the sales," he said.
As well as the two new bars in Belfast, the company has secured planning permission for a beer garden at its Bedford Street premises.
"We expect to be making an investment of between £4m and £5m and creating around 100 new jobs with the two new bars," Mr Martin explained.
The pubs chief said the sale of the five pubs was driven by a strategy to focus on bigger bars where there was scope for the addition of beer gardens.
"We will probably have another look at Derry, Ballymena and maybe Coleraine in a few years' time," Mr Martin added.
In November, the company sold The Old Courthouse in Coleraine, The Spinning Mill in Ballymena, The Linen Hall in Enniskillen and Londonderry's The Diamond London Road and The Ice Wharf to Granny Annie's.
Wetherspoon yesterday announced that like-for-like sales had risen by 3.4% and total sales by 1.6%.
But the company warned that it expected only a "slightly improved" trading outcome for the current financial year, compared to the previous 12 months.
Brexit-backing Mr Martin, who also campaigned against the introduction of the euro, previously claimed that mutual imposition of World Trade Organisation tariffs in the aftermath of the UK leaving the EU would create a windfall for the country.