Little Wing boss on new fatherhood, Brexit uncertainty and expansion plans
‘Our aim is to be in every town between Enniskillen and Lisburn and then Dublin is our target’
Luke Wolsey is the second youngest of the Wolsey family from Bangor, who have been responsible for transforming the hospitality sector in Northern Ireland by introducing concepts like the Merchant Hotel, Bullitt Hotel, The Dirty Onion, Little Wing pizza chain and more to the social fabric here.
Luke’s role in the business is managing director of the Little Wing chain, which this year celebrates the 10th anniversary of the opening of its first outlet on Ann Street in Belfast. It’s also the year when the businessman will expand the chain to open its ninth unit in Whiteabbey.
It’s an ambitious move during a period of political precariousness; two years without a functioning devolved government and our proposed departure from the EU, both of which could hit the public purse-strings and have a knock-on effect on discretionary spending.
Then there’s industry-focused issues that have still to be resolved like high rates and a desire to reform licensing laws.
But Luke is still confident.
His dad Bill has been outspoken in his views on the main political parties who he blames for the lack of an Executive in Northern Ireland. And Luke is similarly exasperated.
“It’s hard to tell what will happen with Brexit,” he admits.
“Nobody knows and we’ve listened to this for two-and-a-half years and you’re thinking ‘just get on with it’.
“I personally was pro-Remain, but I do think we should have gone with the original deal.
“Now we’re just being delayed further but I’m of the opinion we should just get on with it.
“One of my concerns is how Brexit could affect my suppliers. Will costs go up and will I have to pass those on to customers? Luckily for me my suppliers have plans in place.”
Closer to home, Luke says “a mixture of things”, including increasing wages and overheads, are adding more uncertainty to business.
“It’s tough. When decisions are being made it makes life easier and we need a stable government in place to do that. That’s how we grow. There is so much uncertainty around,” he says.
“At the minute we are focusing on expansion in Northern Ireland. We have restaurants in Bangor, Ards, Holywood, Belfast city centre, the Lisburn Road, Lisburn Square and Enniskillen and I accrued the ninth which we will hopefully get agreed within the next two weeks with an opening planned for October.”
In 10 years a lot has changed for Luke.
While he’s still living in Bangor and working the hospitality circuit, being a father has transformed things.
It’s a change he’s embraced with open arms.
“Life’s changed. It’s less drinking and going out and more brunches and family days out, which I absolutely love,” he says.
“Being a father gives you more of sense of being. It gives you a purpose. I remember talking with my friends a few years back and saying I didn’t know if I wanted kids. Today I wonder what I was thinking saying that.”
The new restaurant will create up to 25 jobs in the Whiteabbey area bringing Little Wing’s staff count to 180 employees.
Luke credits the success of Little Wing to a ‘quality not quantity’ offering and harks back to the year when he and his family explored the idea of a pizza chain.
“Little Wing started because we were very heavily involved in bars and nightclubs,” he says.
“Back then a lot of the focus was on the smoking ban and binge drinking so we decided to look at food and we talked about a whole bunch of restaurants including burger restaurants, but we settled on pizza.
“We travelled to London and Italy trying every pizzeria that was well-known and we came back and started in 2009 knowing that we wanted to go down the authentic route and not the Domino’s or Pizza Hut way where there are so many different bases and toppings.
“Our mission statement was to bring Naples-style pizzas to Belfast using local suppliers and time-honoured methods for cooking, good quality dough that is all hand-stretched and additive-free,” he adds.
And that recipe has worked well for the chain. It’s now become something of a household name in its respected neighbourhoods and has become part of the community, throwing itself into corporate social responsibility campaigns, offering bursaries to sports teams and contributing around £100,000 to charity.
It’s also handed over 22 bikes to the communities where its restaurants are based.
“It works both ways,” adds Luke. “We give back because they are our customers.
“They come back and spend money. It’s also another way to say how grateful we are and it’s what most businesses should do. It’s not just a marketing ploy for us, it’s rewarding.”
There’s also Little Wing’s environmental credentials which engage with customers, including its ‘rainforest seal of approval’ coffee and fresh deliveries six times a week to minimise waste.
It also plants 2,000 trees for every restaurant it opens.
Luke’s next move will be to bring the brand into the Republic once Beannchor’s Bullitt Hotel is established in Dublin.
“We fully intend to go down south. Bullitt Hotel acquired a site down in Capel Street in Dublin and that’s two years away so logistically it makes sense for us to expand in Dublin,” he says.
“I’ve already done 850 miles earmarking towns, where I know it will work.
“I feel like when we do go, we’ll go from one to five, six or seven outlets very quickly.
“We are ambitious and would like to go further like Scotland and Manchester, but first we will fill in the gaps between Lisburn and Enniskillen.
“Our growth is quite organic. We’ve been opening one per year, but that’s what works for us. You don’t want to over-extend too quickly.”
The Beannchor Group is synonymous with innovation and over the past couple of decades its portfolio has grown significantly.
But it’s in the blood — and what Luke recalls from childhood is exploring empty bars, taking on roles like glass collecting and cleaning before working his way up to managerial posts.
“My childhood is probably what you would expect it to be. We grew up in pubs and that’s sort of my fondest memories. We grew up in the trade,” he adds.
Luke’s older brother Conal looks after Bullitt Hotel, while Bill is managing director of the entire Beannchor Group which operates the Merchant and Bullitt hotels, bars The National and The Cloth Ear, Ollies Nightclub and The Hillside in Hillsborough, and more.
“I remember always being in the bars we used to have in Bangor before and after school and at weekends,” recalls Luke.
“On Saturdays we would help the cleaners and my brother and I would do the bottle bins. It was a proper family business.”
He says his father always instilled a work ethic from a young age, but adds: “I didn’t see it like that. It was fun. We met so many different characters and while my friends thought it was weird, it was normal to me to go to the pub and get a bit of pocket money.”
Today he’s filled with nostalgia when he sees his eight-year-old sister Caoilinn live the childhood he reflects on so fondly.
“We purchased the Ulster Sports Club next to the Merchant and I saw her filling up a bag with loads of wonderful things from the pub to bring back home and it brings back memories of running around pubs before they were stripped out.”
Luke went to school at Ballyholme Primary and Bangor Grammar and then completed a catering and hospitality and hotel management course at college.
“If I’m honest I didn’t take that course as seriously as I should have but I’ve been in employment from a young age, cleaning pubs, doing the bottles and at 13 I was a glass collector in the Boom Boom Rooms,” he admits.
“It seems crazy but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Luke is so passionate about the trade that he struggles to think what he would be doing if he wasn’t part of a successful hospitality family.
He says: “It’s so hard to picture myself doing anything different. It’s all I’ve ever known and nothing else has interested me. I love being out and about and in hospitality every day.”