Wetherspoons set to snap up popular student haunt The Eglantine
BRITISH pubs chain JD Wetherspoon will finalise a deal within the coming days to acquire the popular Eglantine Inn in south Belfast.
The Malone Road hostelry, which is a popular haunt for the city's student population, was placed on the open market two years ago by owners Wine Inns with an asking price of £1.4 million.
Initially there had been keen interest in a sale before things suddenly went cold with the onset of Covid, which devastated the hospitality sector.
But The Irish News can reveal that Wetherspoons, headed by Belfast educated Tim Martin, has moved swiftly since turn of the year to snap up 'The Eg' in what will be its first acquisition in Northern Ireland in some time.
It will add to its existing portfolio which includes the Bridge House in Belfast, the Central Bar in Carrickfergus, the Spirit Merchant in Newtownards and the Tuesday Bell in Lisburn.
Neither management at JD Wetherspoon nor selling agent Gavin Weir of commercial property agents Avison Young, would officially comment on the acquisition ahead of the legals being finalised.
But when the deal is ratified by the end of January, it will represent a welcome ray of hope for the north's beleaguered hospitality sector and perhaps spark a wider revival in the hotels and leisure commercial property sector, which pre-Covid was worth more than £100 billion a year across the whole of the UK.
The Eglantine, which is located less than a mile from Queen's University and across the road from another long-established student nightspot the Botanic Inn, is being sold as a going concern by hospitality giant Wine Inns, which also owns Belfast bars and restaurants Cutters Wharf and Doyen, as well as nightclub Alibi.
The pending acquisition is likely to revive Wetherspoons' fortunes in Belfast after a number of expansion attempts have been stymied.
The group has owned the former JJB sports store in Royal Avenue for more than a decade, and also a former Methodist church in University Street.
But it has been persistently frustrated in its efforts to secure a license to serve alcohol in either of those properties.
In 2019 it bought the the former Café Vaudville on Belfast’s Arthur Street, which it let to the Revolution Bars Group on a long-term lease, but it had to withdraw its University Road drinks license application to get that deal done.
At the time, a spokesman for Wetherspoons told The Irish News: “The licensing system in Northern Ireland reduces the level of investment from companies wishing to open pubs there.
“It is easier to get permission to build a pub in London, Dublin and Edinburgh.
“We would have opened new pubs in Belfast many years ago if it wasn’t for licensing issues.”
Covid has, of course, created challenging conditions for the wider hospitality sector including Wetherspoons.
In its most recent trading statement in November, the chain reported that like-for-like sales for the first 15 weeks of its financial year were 8.9 per cent lower than the record sales achieved in the same period in 2019.
Bar sales were down 9.6 per cent, food down 8.1 per cent and fruit/slot machines down 12.3 per cent, which was an improvement compared to sales of minus-17.8 per cent in the last 10 weeks of the previous financial year (ten weeks to 25 July 2021), when pubs reopened inside, although restrictions applied for most of that trading period.
Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin said: “The last 18 months have presented a considerable challenge to the hospitality industry, with many unexpected twists and turns.
“But as in previous downturns, the company will continue to concentrate on providing high standards of service, reasonable prices and regular, small upgrades to the business.”
Meanwhile in a separate move, Wetherspoon last week opened its first-ever on-campus university bar as the result of a partnership with Hull University Students' Union.
The bar offers students the chance to drink unlimited coffee for 99p and all the usual Wetherspoons offerings, including its £3.95 breakfast.