By Neil Maidment
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's JD Wetherspoon said it is set to open its first pubs in the Republic of Ireland this year with the aim of expanding to up to 30 sites in the longer term.
The firm, which on Friday reported an expected 6.3 percent rise in annual profit to 76.9 million pounds, has grown to over 880 pubs in Britain on the back of popular value-led promotions like "curry club" and "beer and a burger" offers.
Wetherspoon Chairman and founder Tim Martin told Reuters the improving performance of its nine pubs in Northern Ireland had given it confidence to move now to the Republic, adding property prices there were no longer so prohibitive.
The group wants to open three or four pubs this fiscal year and is looking at sites in locations including Dublin and Cork.
"The Republic has got more than double the population (of Northern Ireland) and so our aspiration would be 20 or 30 in the longer term," Martin told Reuters.
According to recent Irish industry data almost one pub a day is closing in the country following an increase in excise duty on alcohol last year, while in the UK the number is closer to 26 a week as cash-conscious consumers visit pubs less.
For Wetherspoon, whose value offers have helped it become one of the industry's best performers during the downturn, record sales of traditional ales and ciders helped push revenue up 7 percent to 1.28 billion pounds in the year to July 28, with like-for-like sales up 5.8 percent.
Underlying sales in the first six weeks of the new fiscal year rose 3.6 percent, although the firm said growth of 2.5 percent in the last two weeks "may be an indicator for future sales growth", which is broadly in line with market forecasts.
Wetherspoon has long called for tax parity between pubs and supermarkets, saying pubs pay 20 percent value added tax on food sales but supermarkets pay virtually nothing, allowing them to subsidise their alcohol sales.
Wetherspoon said it would join rivals in a "Tax Parity Day" on September 25, when firms will offer a one-day 7.5 percent reduction in prices as part of a campaign by a French veteran to get Britain to cut tax for pubs and restaurants.
Wetherspoon, which paid 551.5 million pounds in tax in the year, equivalent to 632,000 pounds per pub, wants to open 30 new sites in 2013/14.
Shares in the firm, up 58 percent on a year ago, were down 0.7 percent to 730 pence at 1131 GMT (12.31 p.m. British time).
(Editing by Kate Holton)