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Sat 1st Aug 2020 - Opinion Special: The industry's free hit

The industry's free hit by Will Beckett

One of the most interesting things in the industry at the moment is everyone is behaving differently. The rules of the game aren’t known, or if they are they keep changing. It feels a bit like March but in reverse (and perhaps a bit less intense!) – things are slowly getting better but it’s a changing environment that we all need to react to. Changes in local lock-down, VAT rates, no-shows, the rules around being covid-secure, and customer and staff feedback are all things restaurateurs and publicans are dealing with and reacting to. It’s such a dynamic industry and I know despite how horrific the crisis is some people are revelling in the chance to be entrepreneurial.

One of the best entrepreneurial opportunities at the moment seems to be the Eat Out To Help Out scheme – 50% off food (or soft drinks) up to £10 on Mondays to Wednesdays throughout August. The logic seems to be two-fold – firstly it is a sign government has enough confidence that as an industry we’ve done an exceptional job of being covid-secure that it is willing to subsidise people returning to restaurants and pubs; but secondly it’s an acknowledgement of the fundamentals of our industry, namely we can’t stand on our own two feet until we get back to full sales. Most of us traditionally make our profits from Thursday to Sunday when are venues have a greater chance of being full. Social distancing makes that impossible now, but we’ve probably all got spare capacity on Monday to Wednesday.

At my restaurant Hawksmoor, we’re offering customers a 300g rump steak, chips and sauce for £20 (it would have been almost £30 pre-covid) – we’ve taken advantage of the VAT cut and made a slight price adjustment to help drive covers early week. Nothing revolutionary there, but with the government subsidy it’s allowed us to say: “The best steak and chips in Britain for £10.” (Ok, nothing the chancellor did justified us saying “best”, but you’ll allow a restaurateur a little subjectivity in his marketing). 

Industry free hit
We’ve had more than 15,000 bookings for the 13 days of Eat Out To Help Out in August. Whether or not you want to “run with it” in this way, it feels to me that it’s a free hit for the industry. Even if you just sign up and do no marketing at all it’s a nice discount for your customers – up to £50 off a bill for a family of five, like mine. The latest figures show more than 53,000 outlets have signed up and the government has set up an online search tool so consumers can find participating restaurants in their local area. It’s also released stickers and posters for participating restaurants to display and advertise they are taking part.

The truth is, the mark of success for this scheme is not how many seats it fills in a destination steak restaurant in central London, Manchester or Edinburgh. It will be in the communities that are less in the public eye, in venues which are perhaps less connected to the rest of the industry in terms of what is going on. 

Our industry accounts for 6% of businesses in the UK but 11% of all employment (including disproportionately employing young people) and it has a significant impact on all our communities across the country. We were hit extremely hard by covid, have worked extensively to ensure we are covid-secure and now we hope to be part of the national recovery – not just economically and in employment, but also in a recovery of national confidence and mood.

Wouldn’t it be great if we got the vast majority of the sector signed up so it had the maximum impact and we could demonstrate the impact government support can have for our industry and its employees? Ideally it would be embraced from Cornwall to Aberdeen, from Le Gavroche to Nando’s, from JD Wetherspoon all over the country to the Little French in Bristol. The ideal outcome is pubs and restaurants are full Monday to Wednesday with people enjoying a great experience in a safe way. 

If it cost the Treasury a lot of money that would be fantastic – they might even be glad themselves.
Will Beckett is co-founder of Hawksmoor, the award-winning British steakhouse and cocktail bar group

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