Restaurant duo breathe new life into Belfast listed building

Owner Neil Johnson is pictured with a 'Pearl's' re-usable coffee horn, outside the new café on Donegall Square East

TWO well-known local restaurateurs have joined forces to breathe new life into a listed building in Belfast city centre, creating almost 20 jobs.

Neil Johnson, who runs Graze in Ballyhackamore and Joe Baillie of Sozo on the Antrim Road today open 'Pearl's' on the ground floor of Pearl Assurance House on Donegall Square East.

A nod to the landmark building in which it is housed, the new coffee shop and eatery will offer an "urban oasis" in Belfast according to Mr Johnson.

"It's something I really believe in. For myself and Joe we haven't been as excited about something for a very long time," he told The Irish News.

"Pearl's has a focus on Northern Ireland produce and we wanted something that's pretty cool, pretty hip and on trend. It's about creating a wee bit of serenity or an oasis in Belfast city centre.

"There's great potential to do very well, we're offering something completely different in Belfast and we can't wait to see people's reactions."

Pearl's coffee shop, which opens in Belfast today. Picture by Hugh Russell

The business pair first looked at the vacant site in October last year and after securing the building on an initial 18-month lease, have invested around £30,000 fitting it out, creating 19 jobs. Ahead of today's opening the duo said they are excited about the project's vast potential in light of its location and the booming local tourism market.

"It's probably one of the nicest buildings in Belfast and the potential was always there. I know other people like Starbucks looked at it previously, but there were issues in terms of planning, but hopefully we've got through all that and it will be a success for us," Mr Johnson continued.

The new café, which retains the original features of the historic building, has a tropical theme and in addition to offering a breakfast and brunch menu, Pearl's will look to tap into the city's night-time economy.

"Having done the research on it there's a lot of tourists coming to Belfast, but unlike the likes of Amsterdam or London

there aren't many places open after 5pm in the evening for them. The last few weeks as we've been trying to open we've seen so many tourists around with nowhere to go."

If things go well there is potential for the Pearl's brand to expand, with at least one additional outlet on the cards in the future.

"We're trying to develop ourselves as a brand and one of our long-term goals would be when the new (Ulster) university opens up to open another in that area.

"I don't think there's very many places in Belfast like us. It's trying to create that niche and focus on really good food, really good service, really good coffee and then if things move on from that so be it," Mr Johnson added.

Pearl's coffee shop. Picture by Hugh Russell


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