JD Wetherspoon is going against the grain of closures in the struggling pub trade with a £145m investment in new venues and refurbishments which will create 2,000 jobs.
Wetherspoon’s said it had a pipeline of 75 projects, a figure that included 18 new pubs as well as 57 significant extensions and upgrades to existing venues within its estate of 871 premises.
The pub group is not alone in betting that the industry will bounce back when Britons are allowed to resume their social lives in earnest. The RedCat Pub Company, a private equity-backed venture fronted by former Green King chief executive Rooney Anand, confirmed on Tuesday it had bought 42 pubs from the Slug & Lettuce chain’s owner Stonegate.
Tim Martin, Wetherspoon’s outspoken founder and chairman, said the investment would create work for “architects, contractors and builders as well as result in 2,000 new jobs for staff in our pubs”.
However Martin, a regular critic of the UK government’s decision-making during the pandemic, added the caveat that the spending was “conditional on the UK opening back up again on a long-term basis, with no further lockdowns or the constant changing of rules”.
Wetherspoon’s is preparing to open nearly 400 beer gardens, rooftop gardens and patios in England next month when the restrictions are eased further. But Martin has shot down the notion of vaccine passports for pub goers, describing them as “fanciful and disproportionate” and “the last straw” for hundreds of struggling pubs.
Like other hospitality businesses, Wetherspoon’s has been hit hard by the successive lockdowns. It made a loss of £68m after sales halved to £431m in the six months to 24 January. Last year the pandemic pushed the company to an annual loss of £105m – its first since the pub chain was founded in 1979.
Despite the turmoil, at the start of this year Wetherspoon’s raised almost £94m from investors, in part so it could take advantage of falling prices to buy up properties.
“It may be possible to achieve a higher-than-average return on capital on properties acquired in the next few years, based on the company’s past experience,” the company said at the time.
The first tranche of new pubs and extensions are planned for locations including Leeds, Birmingham, Sheffield, Carmarthen and Glasgow.
Once the pipeline of 75 pubs openings and expansions is completed, Wetherspoon’s is promising to spend another £750m opening 15 new pubs and enlarging 50 others each year for 10 years. This 10-year project would create 20,000 jobs, Martin said.