Wear Inns chief executive John Weir has told MCA the group has the firepower to acquire another five or six pubs this year before further investment would be needed.
Speaking on the back of results for the year to March which showed like-for-like sales up 3.4% to £13.6m, Weir said the group was gaining greater traction with female customers and was seeing the benefit of the trend for premiumisation.
Weir said among the focus areas for this financial year was a push on events, with a third of the estate now pushing refurbished function rooms and a new trend developing for private dining.
In the financial year sales growth was boosted by an 8% rise in food sales, which Weir said had been partly driven by the ability to change menus every six to seven weeks, and drinks sales up 2.7%.
In the two months to June sales were up 5.8% with drinks leading the way with a 6% uplift and food up 2.7%. Weir told MCA that wine sales had risen 5% and soft drinks were up 4.5%.
The 26-strong group recently completed the purchase of The Whistlestop, within walking distance of Leeds United’s Elland Road, with plans to spend over £170,000 installing a new kitchen to allow it to serve a wider range of food, as well as refurbishing the pub’s interior and making a feature of the outside patio area.
The company also agreed to sell the New Inn in Durham having undertaken a property review. Weir said no further disposals were planned and the group was keen to expand.
He told MCA: “We have the funds available to do another five or six this year but the difficulty is finding the right sites. Part of our success in recent years is that we have become very tight on what we want – the demographics have to be right, the building has to be right. In the current climate I’d be happy if we got another two or three this year.”
Weir said, while there had been growth across the board, the likes of The Lambton Arms in Chester-le-Street; Ox Inn, Stanley; The White Bear, Barnsley; Priory,York; Victoria, Whitley Bay and The New Inn Wetherby, had all seen a significant increase in trade.
He told MCA: “We have definitely seen the benefit of the trend for premiumisation. Our after work drinks trade has seen a big boost, especially in the past six months. We are getting more female customers and prosecco sales are through the roof.
“But at the same time we are still selling a lot of Stella. It just shows that pubs nowadays need to cater for all tastes.
He added: “Over the past year we have introduced a number of new products including Staropramen, Birra Moretti and the Strongbrow dark fruits range alongside a wider range of cask ales and spirits, especially new gins and vodkas. The fruit ciders in particular have proved popular.
“We also now have the facility to change our menus every six or seven weeks if required, keeping the offer fresh, with the introduction of new menu dishes and our wider range of burgers all making significant contributions to our strong food sales, but also retaining our traditional dishes which are at the heart of our menus.
On the new package for events, which encompasses weddings, Christenings, parties and other events, Weir said: “There is a huge amount of potential there but we are conscious it will take time to build that trade. You can’t think that just because you have a function room it will get filled. There’s a long term strategy of marketing to the right people.
“One thing that has surprised is the number of people asking for private dinners. There’s a lot of businesses that want to have small gatherings and the pub is the perfect place.”
The company’s workforce, which has grown from 106 to 290 since Weir and John Sands formed Wear Inns in 2006, has remained remarkably stable, Weir said.
He said: “Recruitment is always a challenge but we do very well at keeping people with us and because of that we have a good reputation.
“I’m very happy with the team we have. We are set up for the next stage of growth.”