UK pub chains take chance on IrelandSunday 17 November 2013 17.24
After years of waiting on the sidelines, Britain's major pub chains have finally spotted an opening in Ireland.
They are hoping tumbling property prices will give them a chance to expand into a market they never managed to crack.
At the height of a property boom in 2007 one in six Dublin pubs that changed hands was sold for at least €14m.
Almost half sold for over €6m - far too pricey for big players in need of as many as 12 sites to make a market work.
Six years on, after a burst property bubble and an international bailout, the typical Dublin pub now changes hands for a mere €800,000.
In that time, Irish pub revenues declined by a third and more than 1,000 mostly family-run establishments closed down.
According to the central bank, the average Irish pub is now carrying €270,000 in debt.
This means big chain entrants can exploit their financial advantage to invest in refurbishment and be more competitive on price.
The first big British pub firm to announce Irish plans is JD Wetherspoon, owner of more than 880 UK pubs.
It last abandoned plans to enter Ireland almost 10 years ago because of property prices.
It has now agreed to buy its first two Irish sites, both in south Dublin. It aims to open 30 around the country.
"It'll probably take five to 10 years to get established," Wetherspoon chairman and founder Tim Martin told Reuters. "We think we can make a go of it."
Wetherspoon is not the only firm coming.
Charlie Chawke, one of Ireland's best-known publicans, told Reuters he had been approached by an intermediary on behalf of Britain's Greene King, which has 2,300 pubs, restaurants and hotels.
Greene King declined to comment on its Irish plans.
A source at another of Britain's leading pub chains told Reuters it was also keeping tabs on Ireland.
It is not just British chains spotting an opening. David Kelly, Dublin-born owner of the Ri Ra chain of Irish pubs in the US, has opened his first pub in Dublin.
The Irish drink an annual 11.6 litres of alcohol per capita, among the most in the OECD.
The downturn saw drinkers diverted from pubs to cheaper off-license shops and supermarkets.
They now account for 60% of sales.
But drinks manufacturers see the tide turning back. Magner's cider maker C&C saw sales in bars out-perform off-licences for the first time in seven years.
"Having been bearish for two or three years on Ireland in terms of the economic cycle, we're bullish.
The Irish consumer is certainly feeling a lot better," C&C's chief executive Stephen Glancey told Reuters last month.
After imposing a smoking ban that publicans say hurt their business, the Government is now set to bring in minimum alcohol prices.
This should prod some drinkers back to the pub by reducing the price advantage of buying beer in the shops.
One gap in the market where British operators may have an advantage is pub grub.
Food sales are now a major growth area for British pubs as cost-conscious consumers eye cheaper nights out.
They are made more attractive in Ireland because of its 9% VAT rate - much less than the 20% pubs pay in Britain.
JD Wetherspoon anticipates food will make up 50-60% of its turnover in Ireland.
This compares to 30% that Ireland's Licensed Vintners Association says is the average for an Irish pub.
Some 40% of Dublin pubs still do not offer a lunchtime menu at all.
Wetherspoon's Martin acknowledged that "Ireland is a hard nut to crack," adding that the firm recognised it would take time to win over Irish customers.
For a chain looking to build a portfolio, it is still hard to find prime Dublin locations for sale.
One auctioneer said demand for the few pubs on offer in the capital is "phenomenal".
Elsewhere, consumer spending is still held back by unemployment above 13%.
The LVA still predicts more pub closures, arguing that Dublin aside, a country of 4.6m cannot support its 7,400 pubs - one for every 620 people.
Mr Chawke, who paid the highest price ever for an Irish pub, buying the Old Orchard Inn in the south Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham for €22m in 2005, says he is not worried about competing with the big British chains.
"They're very welcome to come in and try their hand at what they're good at. We'll see how they get on," he said.
"People have come and gone before."