Brighton Pier's reputation as the quintessential English home of fish ‘n' chips and penny arcades may be about to be shaken to the core by the news that it has been bought by Luke Johnson's Eclectic Bar Group for £18m. Andy Lynes finds out what he has in store for the town
Brighton Pier attracts more than four million people a year and is the most-visited tourist attraction in the UK outside London. It's one of the most famous structures in the country; an icon of traditional British seaside holidays in all their tacky glory, a place where you can buy candyfloss, sit on a deckchair, eat fish and chips or ride a ghost train.
So it's no surprise, then, that its acquisition last month by Luke Johnson's Eclectic Bar Group for £18m generated a great deal of local and national interest. It's the first time the pier has changed hands in over 30 years, passing from the family-owned Noble Organisation leisure group, which also runs Blackpool's Coral Island arcade, to a company with no previous experience in the field.
On the face of it, it seems a daring leap into the unknown for Eclectic and for Johnson, chairman of private equity house Risk Capital Partners LLP, and who is perhaps best known in a hospitality context as the former chairman of PizzaExpress, founder of Strada and former owner of the Ivy. But Johnson is also the former chairman of Channel 4, has had interests in businesses ranging from a chain of bingo clubs to a nationwide group of dental surgeries, and his portfolio includes holiday companies, a sporting goods company and Brompton Bikes. Diversity is his middle name.
Johnson already has extensive business interests in Brighton. Apart from Eclectic Bar Group, which includes Dirty Blonde and Lola Lo bars and the seafront Coalition nightclub, he has an interest in the Laine Pub Company,
which has 30 pubs in Brighton. He is also the majority stakeholder in the Brighton-based Small Batch Coffee and, as chairman and partowner of Patisserie Holdings, has branches of both Patisserie Valerie and Baker & Spice in the city. In that context, his involvement with the pier seems more like a natural progression than a bolt out of the blue.
Politicians have also welcomed the move. Rob Nemeth, Conservative councillor for the city's Wish ward, says: "The mood is one of excitement. We are glad to see a face with a local connection behind the new venture and
look forward to a general revamp with what the pier is all about in mind."
Simon Kirby, Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown, told local newspaper The Argus: "I think it's good news - millions of people visit the Palace Pier, as they like to call it. It's famous around the world, and if it's being
sold and there's investment in it, it can only mean good things for the city."
Nick Mosley, director, Brighton & Hove Food and Drink Festival, says he expects changes to the pier to take place as a result of Eclectic's involvement. "The Noble Organisation has been guardian of the pier for a couple of decades and has invested millions in maintaining the structure and marketing the city.
Now that guardianship has been handed on to Eclectic Bar Group, which has already established hospitality businesses in the city, so it has a thorough understanding of the market.
"I'm sure there will be significant changes, but I'm sure the essence of the pier will remain unchanged, including the daytime family fun," Mosley says. He also cautions: "I'd urge them to stick with the name Brighton Pier, rather than revert to the Palace Pier, for which there's a groundswell of public support in the city. That would be a marketing mistake, for both the pier and the city itself."
Sink or swim
The acquisition of the pier and the renaming of Eclectic Bar Group to the Brighton Pier Group comes in the wake of pre-tax losses for Eclectic of £511,000 for the year ended 28 June 2015. Johnson described the financial year as a 'challenging period' for the bar business, partly due to the disappointing performance of its Dirty Blonde bar in Brighton. That a bar group would look to diversify comes as no surprise to Jonathan Downey who, in the past, has run a string of London bars, including the Player and Match, but now concentrates his efforts on his Street Feast street food concepts.
"The bar scene is pretty miserable at the moment, so I'm not surprised that Eclectic is moving into other things. People would rather go out to a music festival for two or three days than go out every Friday and Saturday, and that's made a big difference. Younger people don't want to go and get pissed and off their tits like I did - they want to culturally graze, try lots of stuff, and then go elsewhere, so for a bar business it's hard to build regulars," he says.
How any synergies between the existing Eclectic Bar business (or for that matter, any of Johnson's other interests) and the Brighton Pier will be exploited is not yet clear, but the existing food and beverage offering is unquestionably limited, outdated and ripe for revamping.
Johnson told The Argus: "Their [the pier's] hospitality and what they offer at Palm Court fish and chips restaurant and Horatio's bar and the Victoria's bar is perfectly good," but added.
"Could it be better? Of course. I'd like to think that in time there will be improvements." However, a statement from Brighton Council press office says: "The new owners have not so far approached us with any specific ideas for changing the range of attractions on offer. From a licensing or planning point of view, we would consider any such plans on their individual merits."
Indicating that, if Johnson does have any plans to, for example, open another Lola Lo or involve the Laine Pub Company, he is yet to make them official.
What is certain is that the existing management team of 12 years' standing will be retained and Anne Martin will continue as managing director. "Luke has made it quite clear that at the moment it's business as usual
- it's not the intention to merge both groups." The new Brighton Pier Group has two divisions - one for bars and one for the pier - and they will operate separately, each with their own managing director, says Martin. "One of the things that Eclectic, Luke and myself are aware of is the heritage and tradition of the pier, and it's not something we want to change. There are no plans to put a nightclub on it."
There's no doubt that Johnson will have to tread carefully ("Nobody in Brighton wants big changes, just an improved version of what's there already," says councillor Nemeth), but the acquisition of a major leisure business by a bar group could prove an influential one.
"The Brighton Pier thing sounds fantastic and we'd love to get into all that," says Downey, who is currently in talks to bring Street Feast to Brighton Marina. "What we do is transform - what we did in Lewisham with Model Market [a street food market] has transformed its perception and reputation, and it gives the locals a new sense of civic pride. For now, how Brighton Pier will look in five years' time, or even 12 months, is simply a matter of wait and see. But Johnson has been forthcoming about his plans to expand further into the leisure sector, stating in a press release that "this acquisition represents the next stage in the group's development, expanding
the company's existing portfolio and using the enhanced board's diverse skillset to become a differentiated operator of leisure and entertainment assets".
"There are lots of small to medium leisure businesses around the country, like familyowned leisure parks, that may prove to be of interest, but it's a blank canvas, really," says Martin. "We're not talking about Alton Towers
or something on that scale, and not especially other piers, but once you've bought one, other opportunities are presented. I would hope to be involved."
With Brighton Pier, Johnson has acquired an already successful business and, given his track record, that success looks set only to increase. And once he's achieved that, the people of Brighton might well hope that he'll
set his sights on a much bigger challenge that's less than a mile west along the coast: restoring the ghostly remains of the burnt-out West Pier. But maybe the miracle business is diversification too far, even for Johnson.
British Airways i360
Brighton will soon be able to add another major attraction to its list in the shape of the British Airways i360, which opens in summer. The tower, which has been created by the team behind the London Eye, is 450ft high
and visitors will be able to travel to the top in a glass viewing pod. It is being erected on the beach in front of King's Road in Brighton, previously home to the West Pier.
At the base of the tower will be the Belle Vue beachside restaurant, serving Sussex produce and dishes created by MasterChef: The Professionals winner Steven Edwards.
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