Eat Out to Help Out went live on Monday, and so far the signs are looking every bit as good as rare steak for dinner after you were forced to skip lunch.
Of course it’s too early to see total sales for the traditionally quiet early week trading period, but anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests the word ‘unprecedented’ could be due a comeback.
I tried to book a table on Tuesday night at Bill’s and the earliest they could offer was 9pm. It was the same at Giggling Squid. Carmona Tapas, a small three strong chain, was empty the last time I went on 5 July. Now it was fully booked.
It was a similar story the next day for lunch, the earliest table at Bill’s was at 2.15pm. There is no way this would have been the situation had it not been for the discounts on offer.
So the scheme appears to have been a success. It’s had widespread coverage across the media, which has played a supportive role in publicising who is taking part and the kind of deals to be had, though of course many have pointed out the irony of the government encouraging eating out while simultaneously encouraging not eating out via its newly launched obesity strategy.
You could suggest this is another example of mixed messaging from the government, and it’s true that is a crowded field, but the reality is that it’s just a coincidental quirk of timing.
The obesity strategy has been squatting around for years. And while the coronavirus gave it some additional weight there is no reason to conflate it with a short term measure designed to kickstart a failing sector, boost consumer confidence, and attempt to get the economy moving again.
Yes it’s true that throughout August you can pick up a Big Mac meal for sub-1990 prices, but nowadays healthy options are everywhere, and perhaps pricey sushi places will never seem more appealing now the bill has been slashed like the itamae was wielding a shiny samurai sword.
Others have pointed out another potential flaw, that this offer draws restaurants back into the discounting trap that many were looking to escape from before the coronavirus hit.
Discounting is a dicey game and once you start it’s difficult to stop. No-one knows that better than casual dining. The difference here is that this is temporary, rather than being permanently baked into the offer like it has become at Pizza Express.
Another potentially negative aspect is that some chains have scrapped the £10 cap and replaced it with a straight 50% off. Some argue this is unfair on indies and small operators, who can’t afford to extend the offer in a similar fashion, and may find themselves snubbed in favour of those that can.
Again it’s true that the last thing anyone needs right now is a price war. But others say in a free for all it’s legitimate to do anything to win. All is fair in love, war and meal deals. And although indies suffering is a potential consequence from the strategic moves made by the big boys, it’s unlikely that was ever the motivation.
The big chains are not sitting around plotting to strangle the life out of indies, they are looking to compete with each other and save themselves, and why shouldn’t they? And no doubt many indies are benefitting from the scheme regardless of what the chains are doing.
Then there is the potential for weekend trade to drop off. Why would anyone eat out at full price at the weekend when they could eat out for half the price in the early part of the week instead?
What remains to be seen in the coming days and weeks is whether finite household budgets will stretch into the weekend, or whether the early week will replace the weekend in August as the time many go out to eat.
But perhaps it doesn’t matter either way, all that matters is that the tills are ringing again. From my own experience trying to book a table, and from conversations with operators and seeing their tweets of till receipts, many indies and chains have had a barnstorming early week after the last few months of abject misery.
So who cares what day of the week it is if tables are turning faster than the government changes its mind? And even if weekend trade is impacted to an extent, it’s unlikely to evaporate altogether. In the round, sales should be up. And if consumer confidence in going out is restored, that’s another win.
Other criticisms… could the money that’s been invested in the scheme been better spent elsewhere?
Perhaps. Rishi Sunak is about to get the kind of bill you’d expect after you’ve spent the afternoon enjoying a spectacularly lazy lunch fuelled by rose in the sunshine, only multiplied by millions.
But competing priorities over how the government spends taxpayers money are nothing new. Of course the government could spend millions more on education, equally it could spend millions more on the NHS, both could be justified as being more important than Eat Out to Help Out.
Yet for the health of the economy at large, normal life needs to resume. Rather than encouraging people to munch pizza, this is every bit as much of an exercise in getting people in and out of pubs and restaurants to revive consumer confidence. Reality needs to be injected back into society after the surreal existence of spending months locked inside, and if McDonald’s, Nandos or your favourite independent restaurant around the corner are the conduit to achieve that, great.
And yes, it’s a quick boost for hospitality rather than the long term support that will be required. But if hospitality benefits in any way right now that can only be a positive thing. And for all the negative arguments that can be made about the scheme, so far it’s working well. So well that I’ll be booking a table far in advance for next week like I’d never have needed to do on a Monday night before. And I won’t be the only one.
Will Eat Out Help Out?
Eat Out to Help Out went live on Monday, and so far the signs are looking every bit as good as rare steak for dinner after you were forced to skip lunch. Of course it’s too early to see total sales for the traditionally quiet early week trading period, but anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests the word ‘unprecedented’ could be due a comeback. I tried to book a table on Tuesday night at Bill’s and the earliest they could offer was 9pm. It was the same at Giggling Squid. Carmona Tapas, a small three strong chain, was empty the last time I went on 5 July. Now it was fully booked.