Belfast Telegraph

Wolsey brother to transform Holywood nightspot, Wine & Co, into the 'traditional and quirky' Johnny the Jig

By Margaret Canning

One of the best-known names in the licensed trade in Northern Ireland is starting a new venture, with the unlikely inspiration of a statue of a child playing the accordion.

Johnny the Jig in Holywood will be the new name for nightspot Wine & Co, following its purchase from Wine Inns by private investors. The venue was on sale through agents Osborne King.

The deal, thought to be close to the £500,000 asking price, is one of the first to come to light in 2014 after a torrid year for pubs in Northern Ireland.

In 2013 the trade was rocked by the administration of Botanic Inns, the break-up of its 14 venues and the subsequent sale of seven of them by Osborne King to Henry and Seamus Downey - who immediately sold on four of them.

But the last few months of the year also saw a spate of openings, such as The National and the Dirty Onion in Belfast city centre, both owned by Beannchor, the company controlled by Bill Wolsey.

And 2014 promises to be equally lively, even if the action is restricted to the greater Belfast area – including Holywood, the location for a new Wolsey business.

But this time, it's Martin Wolsey – the younger brother of Bill – who will be at the helm, with sons Darren and Christopher.

It will be the fourth pub they are involved in at the moment, alongside The Alleycat in Belfast and The Rabbit Rooms in Bangor. He is the long-term owner of Wolsey's in Bangor, which he first ran with brother Bill and their father.

He said Johnny the Jig would be a mixture of the traditional and the quirky, with some of the eccentricity which punters of the Rabbit Rooms in Bangor are already familiar with.

"It will be called Johnny the Jig, the name of a statue over in the playground very near the pub by a children's illustrator [Rosamond Praeger, who was born in Holywood].

"It's very well-known to Holywood people."

Also a trade veteran, Martin Wolsey said the recent period has been the worst he's ever seen for business.

"It has been a very tough six or seven years, and worse than I have seen before in my 32 years in the business, though I feel we may not be slightly over it.

"I think there probably will be more transactions this year. Prices are still going to be quite low, though you may have to pay a bit more in the right type of areas."

Mr Wolsey said he did swap notes occasionally with brother Bill – whose son Conall is set to open a pizzeria in Holywood, part of the Wolsey family's Little Wing chain.

But he added: "We have different styles of doing things. I have bought and sold different pubs, but Bill maybe has greater aspirations. We have both talked quite a bit about Holywood and Little Wing is of course opening in Holywood, too."

Insiders are divided on whether 2014 will see a deluge of deals or a more timid rate of transactions – and some believe the actions of Nama, which is in ultimate control of pubs The Bot and its sister venues The King's Head, The Northern Whig and Madison's, may still have a ripple effect.

John Morgan, an adviser on the licensed trade at Panther Purchasing, who advised the purchasers of Wine & Co, said: "I believe that there will still be a substantial number of transactions this year, especially given the publicised Ulster Bank de-leveraging strategy and the Nama situation. It is also likely that a number of transactions will happen off-market via private sales and debt restructuring.

"Recent transactions have indicated that there is an appetite in the sector and, whilst still a challenge, institutional funding is becoming more available."

But Gavin Weir, a director at commercial property agents GVA NI, said he expected a quieter year.

"Generally speaking, after a couple of very turbulent years, with a lot of foreclosures and distressed sales, I foresee a period of consolidation, to be honest, with much lower levels of activity.

"Most of the main pub chains that were heavily geared have been dealt with by the main lenders. So many outlets have changed hands in the last 24 months that I suspect the new owners will now want to re-establish consistent trading levels in the coming years, having carried out their rebranding or refurbishment works."

But he added: "The development of pubs such as The National and The Dirty Onion are a very positive sign that some stability is returning to the sector.

"It is my view, however, that we will not have a healthy licensed premises market until we see a return of the operator to operator sales and distressed disposals are a faded memory.

"There is no evidence in the market to say that this is happening at this stage in our fragile recovery."

Belfast Telegraph