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2 September 2020

“Eat Out to Help Out” attracted near-universal approval. But can it save hospitality?

I fear it'll take more than a few free dough balls to fix this crisis.     

By Felicity Cloake

Rare as it is to see my Twitter feed united on anything, let alone approval for government policy, Teflon Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out initiative attracted near-universal approval. Little wonder: in its first fortnight, 35 million meals were consumed for the cause – a figure, the Treasury points out, that doesn’t include restaurants yet to submit reimbursement claims, and is still equivalent to “over half the UK taking part”.

Given the scheme – which offered 50 per cent off food (up to £10 per diner) for three days a week in August – was designed to protect jobs by “boosting demand and getting customers through the door”, it seems to have been a success. Indeed, according to one survey, 39 per cent of people using it did so for their first meal out since restaurants reopened: Oisín Rogers, landlord of Mayfair’s the Guinea Grill, credits the scheme with giving people “the confidence to go out and try restaurants and see we are operating safely”.

But though the response from the industry itself has been largely positive, not everyone is smitten with the Chancellor’s plan. Chef Tony Rodd of Blackheath’s Copper and Ink tells me that “as a small independent, it has been tricky”, not only because of the extra administrative load and the cash-flow implications of claiming money back in arrears – he says he has heard of “aggression towards staff” from customers who can’t get a table, as well as “quiet weekends and other issues”.

Sadly, he’s not the only one to bring up bad behaviour on the part of punters: reports of diners grossly over-ordering to get the maximum discount, demanding money off all week, and generally being “horrible” abound. One café worker confides she can’t wait for Eat Out to Help Out to be over – “I’m sick to death of rude, aggressive customers” – a sentiment confirmed by Janie Thompson of Norfolk’s Thornham Deli, who says at times it’s been “hellish” for her staff. “To put this scheme on now when everyone’s out anyway is ridiculous. It’s great [Sunak]’s doing this, but I think it’s the wrong time.” According to beer writer Melissa Cole, the scheme is “crucifying” drinks-led businesses, which, having put all the safety measures in place, are finding that people are booking a table, staying for one drink “and then pushing off to eat” and “not coming out at weekends”.

Yet, as the sector hit hardest by Covid-19, hospitality is willing to clutch at any straws that might be offered by the Treasury. Edinburgh’s Union of Genius soup café admits that while they know the measure is “only short term”, they’re hoping it will “tide us over until students return in September”. The problem is that no one knows what will happen in the autumn, when both Eat Out to Help Out and the furlough scheme come to an end, and cold weather makes outdoor dining less attractive, posing a particular problem for small venues.

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Jonathan Downey of the Hospitality Union has been clear that Eat Out to Help Out is “nowhere near enough… if the Chancellor doesn’t do something soon to address the issue of the mounting rent debt, half of all restaurants, and two million jobs in hospitality, will be gone by the end of the year”. Twenty-two thousand jobs are already history, and with every week bringing fresh disaster (Pizza Express has announced the closure of 73 sites, potentially affecting 1,100 jobs), I fear it’ll take more than a few free dough balls to fix this particular crisis.