JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin has told MCA that he sees an openings pipeline of c10 sites a year as the optimum rate for the foreseeable future.
In yesterday’s Q3 update, JDW revealed that nine pubs have opened so far this year, with one more set to open in the final quarter. This matches the pace of 2016 but is significantly down on the 24 opened in 2015 and 31 in 2014.
The group has sold 36 pubs so far this year and Martin said there were another “couple of dozen” that would be disposed of then “that will be it for another 10 years or so”.
He said the strong trading in the 13 weeks to 23 April – during which like-for-like sales were up 4% - had been driven by several factors, principally food, craft beer and coffee.
He said weekend trading had become more challenging with sales becoming more concentrated on Saturday nights. He said the decision to drop Sunday roasts had initially contributed to this but said customers had now largely accepted the change.
He also renewed his attacks on other leading pub groups for not “vociferously supporting” his call for tax equality between pubs and supermarkets.
He said one of the key tasks going forward was a project to spend £40m on staff rooms over the next decade.
On the Q3 performance, he said: “It’s difficult to pin it down to one thing. It’s a case of 1,000 components to a BMW. Certainly we saw continued growth in food sales and in coffee but ale has held up well and interest in craft beer just keeps building and building.”
On the openings rate, he said: “It’s something we have to look at but around the 10-a-year mark seems like the right place for us to be. Once you get to about 900 pubs, you’re in most of the obvious places so finding areas for growth is trickier.
“I’d say we could happily grow by 10 sites a year for the next 50 years – which should take me up to retirement!”
On closures, he said: “We go through periods every decade or so when we offload a chunk of pubs and refresh the estate and we’re at the tail end of this one. We’ve got a couple of dozen left to go and then we will be in a good position.”
On his crusade to cut VAT for pubs he said: “When I talk to customers in our pubs they tell me that they don’t want to sit at home with a six-pack, they want to be in a social atmosphere. But they see what they can get in a supermarket and what they can get in a pub for the same money and it turns their hand. No one can blame them for that but as operators our hands are tied by an unfair tax system.
“Nothing will happen on VAT reform until all of the big pub groups come together and push for that to happen. It is the biggest mystery of my professional life why they continually ignore an issue so crucial to the whole industry.”