Downturn dining

Observations on eating out

Restaurants, it is generally agreed, are having an especially tough time of it. The sector’s notoriously low profit margins make it vulnerable to any downturn. Several high-profile players have already come a cropper (among them Antony Worrall Thompson’s Notting Grill and Raymond Blanc’s Brasserie Blanc in Manchester) and many more will undoubtedly join them before the recession is through. Sales may be soaring at the bottom of the market – both KFC and Domino’s have ambitious expansion plans – but elsewhere it’s more a question of trying to stay afloat.

Still, there are generally upsides to other people’s misfortune, and one thing that the credit crunch has done is hugely increase the opportunities for moderately priced dining. Across the country, diners are being tempted in with voucher schemes, 2-for-1 offers and cheap set menus.

As a result, even the most luxurious establishments suddenly seem affordable. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, one of London’s top restaurants, is doing a set lunch for just £19. Outside the capital, the offers are even more tempting: the Michelin one-starred Turners of Harborne in Birmingham has a set menu for £13.50. At the Hand and Flowers in Marlow (also with one star) you can get lunch for a tenner.

“The logic is that it’s better to get bums on seats, and maybe make a tiny profit on each one, than allow places to stand half empty,” explains Joe Lutrario of Restaurant magazine. “Restaurants have always made most of their money on things like wine and mineral water, so even if the food is cheaper, they can still do OK.”

While the obvious crunch-busting tactic for most restaurants is to lower prices, some restaurants are resorting to still more eye-catching initiatives. Throughout February, a London restaurant called Little Bay allowed diners to pay exactly what they wanted for food (drinks were priced normally). I visited one Saturday evening and the place was packed – the manager confirmed that it had been doing 300-400 covers a day since the offer began. Interestingly, the restaurant had found that people were paying more per head than normal. “Eighty per cent of customers paid over the odds,” the manager told me. “Of course, a few tried to get away with paying nothing, but we stopped them from coming back.”

Little Bay is usually one of London’s cheapest eateries. I doubt that this scheme would work at Gordon Ramsay.

One Chinese restaurant has gone a step further, and started bribing people to visit it. For the past few Sundays, Oriental Aroma in Swindon has been paying £1 to anyone who samples its afternoon buffet. The owner, Mr Huynh, reckons the money will be repaid in the long term by the goodwill generated. Which may be a delightful view of humanity, but is surely a dubious business plan.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload