BRITISH pub chain Wetherspoons plans to open between 20 and 30 pubs in the Republic – lured by rock-bottom property prices as the banks try to off-load a portfolio of pubs they now control.
The chain, which has 900 pubs and hotels in the UK, including nine in the North, expects "five or six" Wetherspoons pubs to be open soon, with others to follow later.
The company admitted that "value" in terms of pub prices in the Republic had encouraged it to expand into the Irish market.
"Put it this way. Certainly it is better value than when we were looking at it 10 years ago. It is as simple as that.
"That is part of the reason why now is a better time [to invest in Ireland] than it would have been a few years ago," spokesman Eddie Gershon told the Sunday Independent.
Mr Gershon said drink and food prices would be competitive, but the company had not yet set the price of a pint.
"We will not be bothered about the prices in existing pubs. We would always have very competitive, decent prices for food and beverages as a core value. People come to Wetherspoons for numerous reasons and prices would be just one criterion," he said.
Wetherspoons is believed to be interested in the landmark Tonic public house in Blackrock, Dublin, which is being managed on behalf of AIB. But Mr Gershon insisted that no deals in Ireland had yet been "signed and sealed".
The chain tried to open in Dublin more than 10 years ago, buying a large warehouse space on Capel Street, but the high cost of doing business here put it off and it eventually sold the property.
Wetherspoons, which was set up 34 years ago, serves 350,000 breakfasts each week and is one of the UK's biggest coffee retailers.
Mr Gershon said the company did not see any particular differences between the Irish and British pub trades.
"People eat and drink. It's as simple as that. We try to reflect the areas in which the pub is situated, whether that is something on the menu or a particular beverage, but we are not opening an 'Irish' pub in Ireland. We are just opening regular pubs. We are just opening what we feel are extremely good pubs which happen to be in the Republic," said Mr Gershon.
"We haven't signed on a pub yet in Dublin and so we haven't fixed prices. What we would say is that Wetherspoons is known to be very good value, very competitive.
"A very good example would be the pubs in Northern Ireland, where we have nine pubs and prices have been very well received by customers.
"We are looking at a number of sites in Ireland. Nothing has been signed and sealed. I think we are probably looking at between 20 and 30 in the Republic, so it's quite a big expansion. We are in negotiation with a number of people. We would see four or five pubs opening relatively soon and the rest over a period of time."
Greene King, the brewer behind Old Speckled Hen ale, is also known to be interested in buying existing pubs in Dublin – again attracted by good prices in prime locations.