Wetherspoon steps up expansion

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The Independent Online

The pubs operator JD Wetherspoon is so confident the forthcoming extension of the smoking ban will encourage more customers into pubs that it plans to open 30 new venues next year.

This is more than double the number it opened last year and will create about 1,200 jobs across the country.

The group, which has converted cinemas, theatres and supermarkets into city centre pubs, is to invest more than £35m in the new sites, including in Sheffield, Bishop Auckland in Co Durham, St Austell in Cornwall, Hertford, and Devizes in Wiltshire.

Nathan Wall, the operations director, said a further £25m is being invested in improving exterior smoking areas and in installing super-chilled technology across its pubs. The technology, which uses liquid glycol to cool beer at a lower temperature than water, is currently used across 400 pubs and will be rolled out to the rest by the end of March.

Pubs in Scotland experienced a dip in sales when the ban was introduced in the summer and analysts are predicting a short-term slowdown in Wales and England, where the ban comes into effect in April and July.

However, most operators have invested extensively in improving their food offerings and are expecting to attract customers who were previously put off from sitting in a smoke-filled environment.

John Hutson, the chief executive, said Wetherspoon's 100 non-smoking pubs have been very popular, giving the group the impetus to open more in 2007.

"Although the non-smoking ban might affect sales in all pubs when it is introduced, we are confident that in the long-term it will result in more people visiting pubs and that it will prove a positive move," he said.

Wetherspoon, which has 662 pubs, slowed its annual opening programme while it assessed the likely impact of the ban. For three years, it has had a policy of opening only non-smoking pubs.

In November, quarterly like-for-like sales were up 5.2 per cent in Scotland, although the biggest test for sales figures will come this winter as smokers will be forced to light up outside. Most of the jobs announced yesterday will be at the new pubs, which are likely to employ 20 full-time staff and 20 part-time workers.