Meal dis­counts of­fer din­ers a taste of nor­mal­ity

The ‘eat out to help out’ scheme is al­ready at­tract­ing ner­vous cus­tomers back through restau­rant doors, writes Han­nah Ut­t­ley

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business -

Restau­rants and pubs en­joyed a much-needed up­lift in vis­i­tors this week as the prospect of a half-price meal en­cour­aged peo­ple out of their homes. More than 73,000 restau­rants have signed up to the “eat out to help out” scheme which gives cus­tomers a 50pc dis­count on their food bill when they dine in from Mon­day to Wed­nes­day through­out Au­gust.

The gov­ern­ment-funded ini­tia­tive, which is capped at £10 per head, has al­ready made a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to book­ing lev­els at many restau­rants.

“De­mand has been in­cred­i­ble, we could prob­a­bly have sold the ta­ble three times over,” Will Beck­ett, co-founder of steak chain Hawksmoor, says. “We’ve got around 15,500 book­ings for the 13 days across Au­gust [when the scheme is run­ning], so we’re re­ally pleased with it.”

The boss of one ma­jor pub chain says he ex­pects to see a dou­ble-digit in­crease in book­ings.

Mark Selby, co-founder of Wa­haca, says restau­rant cov­ers dur­ing Mon­day to Wed­nes­day, typ­i­cally quiet days for the sec­tor, are now 50pc to 100pc higher than usual. “I wasn’t sure how many peo­ple were go­ing to take it up and so far there’s been a re­ally pos­i­tive pick-up,” he says. “For a lot of peo­ple, who haven’t eaten out since lock­down re­stric­tions were eased, this has given them a rea­son to go out and given them some con­fi­dence.”

Such is the suc­cess of the scheme that some op­er­a­tors have cho­sen to foot at least some of the bill them­selves. Su­per­mar­ket Mor­risons is ex­tend­ing the ini­tia­tive at its cafes through­out the en­tire week and will sub­sidise the dis­count from Thurs­day to Sun­day, while Whit­bread has re­moved the £10 cap from its restau­rants so din­ers will get a full 50pc dis­count, re­gard­less of how much they spend.

Even higher-end restau­rants have stepped in with their own im­prove­ments. At Hawksmoor, where most bills gen­er­ally ex­ceed £50 per head, din­ers can now get a steak, chips and sauce of their choice for £10 from Mon­day to Wed­nes­day through­out Au­gust. Beck­ett says by pass­ing on the VAT re­duc­tion and an ad­di­tional dis­count, a meal which would nor­mally cost around £30 will now be a third of the price.

Scep­tics say the rush to take ad­van­tage of the dis­count at the be­gin­ning of the week could lead to even more sub­dued sales at the week­end. Restau­rants gen­er­ally need to op­er­ate at around 80pc ca­pac­ity just to break even, but so­cial dis­tanc­ing and weak con­sumer con­fi­dence mean out­lets are cur­rently run­ning at any­where be­tween 20pc and 80pc.

An­drei Luss­mann, founder and di­rec­tor of Luss­manns, a group of fish restau­rants backed by in­vestor Luke John­son, says that while the scheme might mean weaker de­mand at week­ends, its big­gest im­pact will be to drive con­sumer con­fi­dence.

“Thurs­days have def­i­nitely taken a hit, so it might well be that you have a re­ally bad day on Thurs­day and then week­ends are not quite as busy as they have been,” Luss­man says. “That’s not to say that it’s not a good scheme. Any­thing that en­gages and ig­nites some in­ter­est and mo­ti­vates peo­ple to come out and eat has got to be a good thing.”

The real im­pact of the ini­tia­tive is yet to be felt, but some op­er­a­tors are wor­ried about what book­ings will look like from Septem­ber once the scheme ends and the tem­per­a­ture starts to cool, mak­ing out­door seat­ing a less at­trac­tive op­tion. “I am wor­ried, don’t get me wrong,” Wa­haca’s Selby ad­mits.

Fig­ures from data ex­perts Spring­board show that vis­i­tors to UK re­tail des­ti­na­tions rose by 7.8pc be­tween Mon­day and Wed­nes­day lunchtime com­pared with a week ear­lier. How­ever, the in­crease is

‘The best we can hope for is that this scheme gives peo­ple the con­fi­dence to come out and feel safe in a restau­rant’

skewed by a weak com­par­i­son, Spring­board said, with heavy rain on Mon­day last week mean­ing more peo­ple stayed at home. Mean­while, foot­fall re­mains sig­nif­i­cantly lower than pre-Covid lev­els, with vis­i­tors down by al­most a third com­pared with the same pe­riod a year ear­lier.

Restau­ra­teurs ad­mit that while the Chan­cel­lor’s dis­count scheme is un­likely to trans­late to an in­crease in prof­its in most cases, the big­ger achieve­ment is to make peo­ple com­fort­able about vis­it­ing restau­rants again, and prove they are safe and clean places to go.

“The best we can hope for is that this scheme gives peo­ple the con­fi­dence to come out and feel safe in a restau­rant while hav­ing a great ex­pe­ri­ence,” Selby adds.

“If that can be the legacy of this, then it’s been a great suc­cess.”

Din­ers in cen­tral Lon­don take ad­van­tage of the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, which runs in Au­gust be­tween Mon­days and Wed­nes­days

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