Bass joins the rush to the themed bar

Bass has joined Whitbread and Rank in the rush by Britain's large leisure companies to buy up the booming themed bar and restaurant sector. It has emerged that Bass made a unsuccessful bid to buy the Pitcher & Piano chain of bars earlier this year but lost out to Marston, Thompson & Evershed. Marston secured the seven outlets for pounds 20m in June.

Bass had wanted to convert the chain to its fast-growing All Bar One format and introduce its own management. The bid failed because the Marstons offer was higher and allowed the existing Pitcher & Piano management, including founder Crispin Tweddell, to remain on board.

Bass declined to comment on any approach for the chain but said it was committed to the rapid expansion of All Bar One, which currently has 15 outlets. "We're looking for good sites in London, the South-east and the suburbs," the company said.

The Bass move is further evidence that brewing and leisure groups are prepared to pay fancy prices for themed pubs and restaurants rather than develop their own sites.

Other recent deals have seen Whitbread buy the Cafe Rouge group Pelican, Greene King buy The Magic Pub company and Rank acquire the Tom Cobleigh pub chain.

Speculation has turned to other targets for Bass, which could include pub groups Regent Inns and JD Wetherspoon and restaurant chains Harry Ramsden's and Pizza Express.

All Bar One is a similar concept to the Pitcher & Piano. Both are bright and modern bars aimed at young, trendy drinkers. They also have a high level of food sales. The first All Bar One opened in 1994 in Sutton, Surrey. Most are in London and the South-east though there are outlets in Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham.

The Pitcher & Piano deal would have given Bass a short-cut to expansion. It could switch targets and buy a different chain though these are now trading on exorbitant ratings. The alternative is to find suitable sites for conversion from its existing pubs.

Though Bass has a huge chain of pubs, the brewer needs high street sites in the South-east for the All Bar One outlets and this is an area where Bass is under-represented. "We are looking almost exclusively for new sites rather than conversions," Bass said. Bass is also growing its Fork & Pitcher group of traditional village pubs. There are now over 40 with the number expected to double by the end of the year.

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