Strategy and Planning
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It saw diners return in droves, but what will restaurants do now the £522m initiative has drawn to a close?
Last updated: 03 Dec 2020 7 min read
Across the UK, some 84,000 restaurants and cafes took part in Eat Out to Help Out (EOTHO), with the latest figures showing that 100m meals were served during August. Kate Nicholls, CEO at UKHospitality, credits EOTHO with “a sudden uplift in trade at a time when it was most needed, after months without any revenue stream to speak of”.
But she adds: “The underlying – and possibly more impactful – effect may be that it helped boost consumer confidence to return to enjoying going out, and to experience the measures that venues have put in place to make them Covid secure.”
The innovations restaurants introduced have been varied. “Robust new apps and technology have been developed at breakneck speed to provide secure and effective booking, ordering and payment options,” Nicholls says, “often incorporated with secure and speedy test-and-trace data collection.”
At the simpler end of the scale, she says: “This may just have been doing away with menus and writing the options on the wall; but our sector demonstrated great imagination to provide a better, safer experience.”
Mark Laurie is director at the Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS). “Many restaurants are now extending the scheme voluntarily,” he says, “either in whole or in part, with a £10 – £20 meal option or equivalent to the scheme.
“This could be very exciting as it means chefs will have to make more affordable produce go further; we could see more home-cooked type food, which I think would be good for people’s budgets; and it will help restaurants stay in business.”
Laurie adds, however, that not everyone in the sector has benefited. “The mobile-catering industry has repeatedly missed out on any government support at all,” he says. Many of these business owners have been unable to access the Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) or the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, as company directors have been excluded. “And unfortunately, I can’t see that changing,” he says. “Restaurants are desperate for help with their landlords’ overdue rent from when they were forced to remain closed.”
“Many of the localised outbreaks of Covid-19 have developed in food production plants, where margins are tiny; undermining the value of food is counterproductive in the long run” Mark Laurie, director, Nationwide Caterers Association
For the future, the NCASS would like to see the government provide further support. “If a restaurant cannot pay its rent, could it be helped to move to somewhere that does make sense to them? Paying significant rents for food-to-go businesses in areas where footfall has remained around 30% of pre-Covid levels just isn’t going to work,” he says, also suggesting VAT changes be made more permanent.
Nicholls adds: “With the next quarter-rent day looming (29 September) and no break in the impasse between many tenants and landlords, the threat is existential for many. The end of furlough will force some uncomfortable decisions on many businesses if employment support disappears altogether. But we remain in constructive dialogue with a government that has thus far listened and acted, so we are not without hope.”
For Agit Ceviz, owner at SoraZtra in Roath, Cardiff, EOTHO was not without its challenges. “We didn’t do the scheme for the first week because of cash flow – you have to wait for the money to come through. For small, independent businesses, giving a 50% discount runs you too close on your margins.”
So how has the need for socially distanced dining worked out? “We’ve had to employ an extra person for the additional hygiene requirements – extra caution on sanitising the tables between each customer, and cleaning the toilets frequently. There’s an extra 10 minutes between bookings, and the cost of this adds up.”
While Ceviz feels that the scheme itself was an intelligent move, he says: “The way it’s been rolled out was not ideal. Rather than offering 50% three days a week, we think it would be have been better to have 25%, all week.”
There are two reasons for this. First of all, he says: “It means we’ve been over-booked on the days it applied and then booking slumped by 50% – 60% for the rest of the week.” Second, he adds: “We found people coming in repeatedly in order to get the most discount – putting a deadline on it has changed people’s behaviours.”
A further challenge is how you then adjust staff to accommodate for this disparity. “You have to pay the electric, gas and rent bills, regardless of whether you are open or not. So restaurants are going to have difficult decisions over the next few months.”
Would Ceviz consider extending the scheme voluntarily? “We don’t want to do anything that will cost money when we don’t know what’s about to happen – next week could be completely different, and there might be another local lockdown,” he says. “We lost £6,000 worth of stock when the lockdown started because it was imposed so suddenly.”
And with a new rule prohibiting social gatherings of more than six people from two households having been imposed on Monday, Ceviz’s caution does not seem unfounded.
In Scotland, the blanket ban on live or background music has had a negative impact on food service, with many bars closing early as a result. “Scotland has certainly taken a more cautious approach,” says Laurie. “It’s becoming clearer that track and trace is the only way to enable live entertainment to thrive again – either side of the border.” He adds: “The problem with banning things is that they have a habit of re-emerging in a far less controlled way, as we’ve seen with house parties and raves.”
Lisa Steele is general manager at the Cultra Inn, part of the Culloden Estate and Spa near Belfast. “Bars aren’t open in Northern Ireland – if you want to have a drink, you need to buy what the legislation calls ‘a substantial meal’,” she says.
Partly due to this, EOTHO has been a great success for the Cultra Inn. “Yes, it has meant having to reorganise the tables with additional space between them – and we’ve had to think about allowing plenty of space for our team as well,“ she says.
“But overall, the scheme has given everyone an extra boost. Yes, we would like to see more support to get back on our feet, as the hospitality industry has been so badly hit by Covid, but we just want to thank our customers for their support and for helping us through.”
Should EOTHO be extended? Laurie sounds a cautionary note. “It raises serious questions about devaluing food and the people that produce it, so I would be reluctant to call for its continuation,” he says.
“Many of the localised outbreaks of Covid-19 have developed in food production plants, where margins are tiny; undermining the value of food is counterproductive in the long run.”
And what’s on the horizon? “When the weather changes, we won’t be able to use the outside bar,” says Steele, “but we have lovely fires inside. We just need to know now when the laws here will change again. Restrictions in Northern Ireland were meant to be lifted in August, then it became 9 September, and currently it’s 21 September. So, we’ll just have to wait and see.”