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Eat out to help some more

The government-funded Eat Out To Help Out scheme officially came to an end on Monday 31 August, though a number of restaurants are continuing the scheme this month, covering the costs themselves. In our latest opinion piece, Going for Gold Public Engagement Coordinator Florence Pardoe explores how successful the scheme has been and whether it actually benefited the hospitality industry.

Nationally, 64 million reduced meals were served in the first three weeks of the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, but on average Bristol restaurants saw only a 7% increase in July, compared with 13% in Gloucester and Cardiff and 23% in Bournemouth, the highest in the UK. The government has deemed the programme a success in terms of rebuilding consumer confidence and encouraging people to help the recovery of the hospitality industry, the industry worst affected by the pandemic.

Initially, a number of national chains announced they would be extending the scheme. Now, more small, independent eateries in Bristol have also decided to extend the offer, covering the financial cost of this themselves. I was curious to understand how, in an industry with such small margins, they could afford to do so.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to treat myself to lunch and dinner far more freely than I otherwise would have, and while many restauranteurs have fed back very positively on the scheme, some of my research and a couple of conversations have left me pausing to consider whether this scheme has been of benefit in the long run, or if in fact it may have done more harm than good.

Firstly, let’s consider those increases on July. Typically, August sees a high number of people eating out, enjoying the sun and holidays. With lockdown being lifted, many people would have been raring to get back to dining out, so would we have seen those increases anyway?

Certainly, those restaurants that are large enough to accommodate a good amount of covers with social distancing in place and who have outside dining areas have a huge competitive advantage. Many have been doing a roaring trade throughout August and it would seem these are the very places that are able to afford to continue the scheme into September themselves. Them and the huge national chains.

The scheme has undeniably been a short-term help for some restaurants. A number of small independents running the scheme certainly saw booking numbers that they otherwise probably wouldn’t have, with Monday to Wednesday evenings for August fully booked weeks ahead, and saw new customers coming through the doors. But what now? Many of these restaurants operate under extremely small margins, serving high-quality food that is priced fairly for producers and staff, meaning that the food is not cheap and for most of us a meal there is real treat. Well, now we’ve crammed in our treats dining out in August, are they going to find themselves empty in September?

The crucial question for me around whether this scheme is a positive thing in the long run is concerning how offers like this change our perception of value. As Aine Morris of Bristol Food Union puts it, does it create a ‘Pizza Express effect’, where there is always a discount or a voucher to be found, and we become reluctant to spend a fair proportion of our disposable income on a properly sourced, expertly prepared and beautifully presented meal. Can this devaluing of a sustainable, local, independent hospitality scene really be helping out?

With the exception of a few fortunate independents, it is mainly the big national chains that are able to afford to extend the scheme; chains that frequently do not contribute to the resilience and recovery of the local economy; that do not prioritise sustainable, local produce; that do not positively contribute to improving the health of the nation or aligning with the government’s latest anti-obesity drive.

The most misplaced example must be ASDA, who are offering 25% off food in their café through-out September under the guise of Eat Out To Help Out. As The Sun writes: “The supermarket giant will slash the price of food this month in its cafes to help out struggling shoppers. This still means hungry customers can tuck into a full English for just £3.26 and a plate of chips will only set punters back 64p”.

The scheme was never intended as a means to tackle food insecurity. It was meant to aid the recovery of the hospitality industry. And while those with low-income should indeed still be able to enjoy a meal out, I would argue that their money would be better spent on a breakfast that costs a little more at a local independent café. This undercutting of the local market by a member of the Walmart family, whose owners, The Waltons, are worth $225.2 billion dollars and get $100 million dollars richer every day, leaves a particularly bad taste in the mouth.

One final thought. It is not the government’s money that has paid for this. It is ours, the tax-payers. At a total cost on 31st August (restaurants can still submit until the end of September) of £522 million, was this the most effective use of that money to support the struggling hospitality industry?

We’d be very interested to hear your experiences of Eat Out To Help Out. Please email florence@bristolfoodnetwork.org if you have any insight or thoughts to share.

Image kindly supplied by The Nectar House.