Opinion: Only using Eat Out to Help Out for a cheap McDonald’s is missing the point
If you own a café, run a pub or lead a restaurant, you automatically have my respect. And if it’s by the coast, I salute you.
It might be rewarding, but it’s certainly not an easy industry to work in - and saying it’s been a busy fortnight would be putting it lightly.
We’ve now passed the second week of Eat Out to Help Out, the government’s 50pc off shot in the arm for the food and drink sector.
After lockdown, the heady concoction of school holidays, scorching weather, a staycation frenzy and half price meals has taken some owners and chefs from famine to feast.
On the whole, grateful restaurateurs have sung its praises - tables (albeit fewer, as space is made for social distancing and staff remain on furlough) have been full and phones are ringing off the hook.
After the worry, uncertainty and isolation of the last few months, it must be a welcome relief to return to a busy kitchen. And suppliers, from butchers to bakers and cheese-mongers to charcuteries, are also reaping the benefits.
But - to nab a metaphor from a local landlord I spoke to this week - while it might be a band aid, it’s unlikely to be enough to let the industry heal.
Experiences have been mixed. Weekend trade appears to have dropped off in some places, as diners swap full price menus for discounted versions.
Some restaurants, overrun with demand, have been serving tables as late as they can to keep up. Many have had to turn customers away. I’ve been told some have dropped the scheme entirely.
Though careful to show gratitude for the boost, some have quietly asked: Why August? Why an already busy month? Wouldn’t the benefit have been better felt in the quieter autumn season?
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It has certainly achieved its aim of getting the public eating out (though most likely only those who were already inclined to), and we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
But for those on the restaurant floor, there’s a lot to consider. No-one wants to repeatedly turn away customers, lose trade elsewhere or be forced to sacrifice high standards to cope. It defeats the point, and one main goal of the scheme: Repeat custom.
Because that’s what really matters. A strong August is not to be sniffed at, and nor is meeting new customers. But it means far less if trade falls off a cliff from September, if no-one ventures out past August 31.
This isn’t just a month to have a cheap McDonald’s or half-price Nando’s. If you fancy it, go for it. Enjoy a bargain while you can. I’m certainly partial to a golden arches breakfast, and a half chicken and chips (lemon and herb, sorry).
But it does miss the point. We know bigger brands are better placed to weather the storm. Instead, let’s ensure that going forward we still have independent cafés, family-run bistros and unique restaurants on the high street - and that we aren’t eating from the same six chains that have survived.
None of us know what’s around the corner, and reports from around Europe show we can’t take anything for granted. We are yet to see the true economic impact. Who knows where we will be in two months time.
So take the kids out to their favourite spot. Grab a burger on the go. But make sure your money is also going where it will really make a difference - and when September 1 rolls around, remember those who will still be fighting to keep their businesses afloat.
• Lauren is our chief reporter for Norwich and food editor for Norfolk.
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