So, it is a few weeks now since the Eat Out to Help Out (EOTHO) scheme officially ended, which has been time to reflect on it and how it has affected us. As a non-food outlet (discounting our amazing pop-up from Yak The Himalayan Kitchen, which doesn’t really directly benefit us in cash terms) we were not expecting to gain any net benefit from it. In fact, the suspicion was it may draw customers away in that already difficult early week period as they spent what they had available in restaurants.
In actuality, we were pleased to find that EOTHO diners were actually inclined to make an evening of it and have pre-drinks and post-drinks with us (leading to some amusing sales graphs and some thumb twiddling at “dinner-time”). Couple this assisted sales boost with the fact that we are traditionally quiet in August (we don’t benefit from nice weather filling pub gardens – it draws people away from our nice and cosy but rather warm space) and our overall trading performance was very heartening. You would therefore be forgiven for assuming I would welcome any extension of the scheme. However, the prospect of that happening, as some people started campaigning for, was not necessarily something I was keen on, in a large part due to the longer term impact on the industry I, and the rest of the team, are proud to be a part of.
Firstly, there are plenty of positive things to see in the impact of the EOTHO scheme. According to data from Barclaycard, around 18% of diners who used the Eat Out To Help Out initiative will return to restaurants they would not have otherwise visited without the incentive with almost one in five (19%) planning to continue dining out more often to support the industry. This research from Barclaycard Payments showed spending in UK restaurants and fast food outlets was up 34.2% on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August, compared with the same days in July and that the number of transactions grew by 33.7% with average spend data showing customers ordered more food and non-alcoholic drinks than they would usually.
Eat Out To Help Out was a fantastic lifeline for the hospitality sector, but it could not have continued forever. My concern on the long term impact if it had continued, based around the observation that the scheme put a lot of pressure on restaurants operationally just to make it happen, is that it could easily put independent restaurants at risk. It has also put the pressure on businesses to continue the scheme at their own expense, something indies simply cannot do. Running a restaurant is really expensive. You have to pay rent, business rates, staff and for food. These costs have to therefore be covered by the pricing on the menu. It’s all well and good for the big brands but for small restaurant businesses, covering the costs of a 50% discount isn’t viable.
My main issue with extending the scheme however, is that diners are forgetting the real value of food. On pretty much any high street in the UK, you can eat a burger for 99p or fried chicken and chips for a fiver. But the truth is that food simply cannot be a cheap commodity, it is important we wean the general public away from chasing the discounts. Something has to give. Whether it’s the quality of the cow’s life, the farmer who reared it, or the soil used to grow the crops to feed the cow. We should expect to pay a fair price for the food on our plate. I appreciate we’re in the middle of some very tough times, and many people are struggling financially but entering into a culture of discounted meals isn’t going to solve this. People must understand the real value of food (and drink) rather than seeing it as a cheap commodity and operators that it boils down to the ‘value’ of their offering. It is the food, drink, service, atmosphere and a safe environment that will see those prosper the most through these hard times.