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18 August 2020updated 01 Sep 2021 7:37am

Britain’s ghost restaurants: Local lockdowns and weekend slumps hinder Eat Out to Help Out

The discount scheme is a “double-edged sword” for some restaurants across the country.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Elena Ionascu, the owner of Italian restaurant DaVinci in Aberdeen city centre, woke up on Wednesday morning 5 August with her tables fully booked for the evening. At 5pm, the council ordered her to close: Aberdeen had been put under local lockdown.

After five months of closure, DaVinci had only been open 20 days since the Scottish government allowed restaurants to start up again on 15 July. Ionascu began providing deliveries and takeaways after a month of full lockdown, but that was only bringing in 20 per cent of her usual business.

Most of her waiting staff and some chefs were furloughed in that time, and she’d only recently begun returning staff to work when Aberdeen shut down again.

That same week, customers and restaurateurs across the rest of the UK were enjoying the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, with £10 discounts on meals eaten in on Monday to Wednesday throughout August.

Ionascu had made use of the scheme just once on Tuesday (her restaurant is closed on Mondays) before she had to close again. Now she has piles of fresh fish, meat and vegetables stocked for a fully–booked restaurant going to waste, and a closed restaurant which she had diligently made Covid-compliant by reducing her 14 tables by half.

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Aberdeen – partly thanks to the introduction of local lockdown – is now among the worst-hit areas of the UK in terms of customers returning to restaurants, retail and recreation:

Local lockdown has hit businesses in Aberdeen
Relative change in daily mobility compared to Jan 3-Feb 6 (retail and recreation, including restaurants)
Source: Google

Mobility data for the city shows a steady climb in customers up until Monday 3 August – the first day of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme – but even at its peak it stood at 30 per cent lower than pre-pandemic levels.

Since then, retail and recreational mobility has plummeted, reaching depths of -60 per cent just four days later, mostly due to the closure of hospitality venues.

“It’s like hell. I don’t know for how long we’ll survive like this because it’s like madness,” Ionascu says. “We are a small, independent business, so we don’t have big money behind us. We need to work, we need to survive somehow.”

Aberdeen is not the only city in which restaurateurs are suffering. Leicester, the first UK city to enter into a local lockdown on 29 June, endured a large fall in people returning to restaurants and shops and is still seeing one of the lowest levels of mobility, despite restaurants reopening on 3 August.

“How the local lockdown hit our morale, my morale personally, my motivation – I can’t describe that feeling, because I just felt so, so horrible inside,” says Shaf Islam, who has owned and run the Chutney Ivy upmarket Indian restaurant in Leicester city centre for ten years.

During the national lockdown, Chutney Ivy ran a “miniscule” takeaway business, losing 80 per cent of his usual revenue. Yet, following his mantra “Keep Calm and Curry On”, Islam worked as a chef himself at his restaurant to cut costs, and looked forward to 4 July: the date restaurants were supposed to reopen in England.

In the fortnight building up to the reopening, Islam spent £500 on fresh produce and “thousands of pounds on sanitary stations, screens, PPE stuff, signage to make sure people are socially distanced. I’d distanced all my tables, taken tables out so they are all at least 1.5 metres apart with screens on each table, and bought outdoor furniture.”

All this, only to discover on 29 June, via a phone call from a local journalist, that Leicester would be the first English city to go into local lockdown. “After all the pain of waiting to reopen… it was almost like I’d checked my lottery ticket and won and then realised it wasn’t valid,” he says.

“What we noticed that first weekend [of local lockdown] was our takeaways diminished as well because everybody had left the city centre – you can’t blame them, being caged in their houses for four months. There was no legislation saying you couldn’t leave the house and go out somewhere; all it said was businesses couldn’t reopen. I just thought it was very, very unfair.”

Despite reopening on 3 August in time for the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, Islam has also noticed a “Leicester leper” effect on his business. The basement lounge he books out as an event venue, which usually brings in 25-30 per cent of overall trade, has suffered a stream of cancellations.

“People were postponing their weddings and birthday parties before, but now I’m getting cancellations because their family and friends from out of town don’t want to travel to Leicester.”

He describes Leicester as a government “experiment”, with residents as “gerbils on wheels”. Local lockdown was “like The Truman Show”, he says, “they were watching to see what would happen to us. Well, this isn’t a Hollywood movie and it has a knock-on effect on the whole city.”

Greater Manchester – despite local lockdown restrictions allowing people to visit pubs and restaurants so long as they are from the same household – has also been badly hit, as has Blackburn with Darwen, under similar restrictions.

Not everywhere is seeing a return to restaurants
Average relative change in mobility (retail and recreation, including restaurants) August 01-15
Source: Google

For the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, the best way to get customers back into restaurants is to reduce coronavirus cases. He tells the New Statesman: “There is still a nervousness amongst the public. The best thing we can do is make test and trace what it ought to be which is the world-beating system the government has spoken about, and it isn’t that at the moment.

“Confidence will come from running a proper test-and-trace system, which allows people to follow requests the minute they receive one. I’m talking explicitly about people on zero-hours contracts and in the gig economy who are struggling to do that. 

“That is the best way we can support all business right now.”

Kate Hollern, the Labour MP for Blackburn, agrees. “People in Blackburn want to follow the rules to help tackle this virus. But it is the government’s responsibility to make sure they have the information and confidence to be able to, and that businesses have the support they need to survive,” she says.

“What we need is an effective test and trace system and a more targeted and tailored approach to protecting jobs, businesses and our high streets.”

She adds: “Without proper support for the hardest-hit sectors and areas in local lockdown, the government is making an historic mistake that puts people’s lives and livelihoods at risk. Extending or re-imposing local lockdown rules while simultaneously failing to support staff and businesses is simply not good enough.” 

Despite the issue of local lockdowns, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme seems to be working across most of the country. Figures from Open Table show that the number of reservations and walk-ins at British restaurants on 3 August, the first day of the scheme, jumped to levels higher than last year for the first time since March, while Google Mobility data shows more people are taking part in retail and recreation activities than at any point since lockdown. 

In some parts of the country, figures show a higher mobility rate for retail and leisure (including restaurants) than before the pandemic. The figures – provided by Google – are indexed to January this year, meaning they could still be lagging behind 2019, but it is not known for certain. Cornwall, as well as parts of Wales, Northern Ireland and Yorkshire have all seen the largest recoveries relative to their level in January.

Many places are seeing more customers than before the pandemic
Average relative change in mobility (retail and recreation, including restaurants) August 01-15
Source: Google

“The scheme has certainly been a success and our members are reporting a very welcome boost in trade in the first part of the week,” says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UK Hospitality trade association. “It remains to be seen whether this morphs into a longer-term boost.”

She warns: “Customer confidence needs to return swiftly if we are going to see bookings stay up or, better yet, increase, after the scheme ends in a couple of weeks.

“The recent local lockdowns are a reminder that we are still not out of the woods. There is going to be a lot of work to do over the coming months, and the future of some businesses are going to be in the balance.

“If businesses are forced to close again for any sustained period then the reality is they will need financial support from the government. Otherwise, they are going to fail with the loss of jobs.”

There are concerns that while customers are returning to restaurants during the start of the week, the scheme is having a negative impact on some restaurants during weekend service. The Open Table figures show a significant drop between Thursday and Sunday compared with 2019, despite a boost from Monday to Wednesday.

“Eat Out to Help Out has been a phenomenal success. I’m booked out for those three days [Monday-Wednesday],” says Chutney Ivy’s Shaf Islam. “But the problem is, they’re the only three days we’re busy.”

At the end of Wednesday evenings, he is “walking on air” because of how busy the restaurant has been, but by Saturday feels “so deflated again, because business has gone back to non-existent”.

“The first Friday of the scheme, we had a dead night, something we’ve never had in ten years of business. So that just showed people’s mentality.”

“The first Friday of the scheme, we had a dead night, something we’ve never had in ten years of business. So that just showed people’s mentality.”

Eat Out to Help Out is having an effect
Seated diners from online, phone, and walk-in reservations compared to the same point last year
Source: Open Table

Islam calls the scheme “a double-edged sword”. “My worry is when the lockdown is lifted, with the economy as it is, how have people’s eating habits changed? At the moment, it’s a false economy,” he says. “It doesn’t give me any confidence in what’s going to happen afterwards. It’s almost like another experiment.”

Although she is grateful for government help (making use of the furlough scheme, emergency grants and loans, and the cut in VAT to 5 per cent introduced for the hospitality industry), Ionascu, of DaVinci, is missing out on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and would like extra financial support to sustain her restaurant through the local lockdown.

Previously loyal takeaway customers eager to support local businesses through the national lockdown have changed their habits, or gone on holiday, so orders have now “hugely decreased”.

“I don’t know what else to do because the takeaways and deliveries have almost stopped, dining in is stopped again, and who knows for how long?” she asks. “I still need to pay rent, I still need to pay electricity, gas, phone, rubbish, water, all these things, you still need to pay them. I don’t know for how long we can survive.”

The New Statesman contacted the Treasury to ask what extra help would be available for restaurants and hospitality businesses suffering under local lockdowns.

With no indication of specific help for those businesses, a Treasury spokesperson pointed to the government’s ongoing general support across the hospitality sector, including the VAT reduction, £50bn in loans, grants, and the furlough scheme (which will be replaced by the £1,000 “job retention bonus”).

“While it would be for the Scottish government to consider any further assistance for specific Scottish regions, the UK government keeps all support schemes under review,” they added.

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