Wolves may call time on food at 450 pubs

The government plans to ban smoking in all public places from 2007, with an exemption for pubs that do not serve food. On Wednesday, M&B said it would stop selling food in about 400 pubs. Both companies said they preferred a full smoking ban.

Ralph Findlay, the chief executive of W&D, whose pubs include the Pitcher & Piano range, said yesterday: "I would prefer it if all pubs were on a level playing field." He said some of the group's smaller pubs might have to stop selling food to remain viable businesses. He estimated that 10 to 20 per cent, or between 230 and 460 pubs, could go that way.

Mr Findlay also signalled an interest in parts of the Spirit Group estate, which may be broken up after being acquired by Punch Taverns this week. W&D has been highly acquisitive, and said yesterday that Burtonwood, Jennings and English Country Inns had been successfully integrated and would bring higher-than-expected cost savings of £8.6m.

W&D reported a 16 per cent increase in annual pretax profits to £90m, with like-for-like sales up 2.8 per cent at both its managed Pathfinder Pubs and its tenanted Union Pub Company. Sales growth has slowed since the financial year ended on 1 October, and Mr Findlay warned the market would "stay tough for the foreseeable future", with few signs of an upturn in consumer confidence. He also estimated that the new 24-hour drinking laws would boost sales by 1 to 2 per cent, as most of its pubs will stay open an extra seven hours a week.

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