Britain's managed pub, restaurant and bar groups saw collective like-for-like sales bounce back up to 2019 levels in August thanks to the government's Eat Out To Help Out campaign, but September is "another crucial month".
According to the Coffer Peach Business Tracker, while food-led businesses forged ahead, drink-led operations still found trading tough. The London market also trailed significantly behind the rest of the country.
Of the group-owned sites, 85% have reopened, with total sales across the whole managed pub, bar and restaurant market still 12.2% below last August's levels. However, like-for-like sales in those businesses trading came out flat, matching the sales volumes seen this time last year.
Karl Chessell, director of CGA, the business insight consultancy that produces the tracker in partnership with the Coffer Group and RSM, said: "To get back to last year's sales levels in those sites that were able to trade is some achievement, just a month after the industry started to reopen, and credit has to go to the government-backed discount scheme that attracted so many people back out to eat, plus the cut in VAT on food.
"But, of course, not all parts of the market benefited, and there will also be concern about what the government's new legally-enforced restrictions will have on consumer confidence in the weeks ahead."
Restaurants enjoyed the biggest boost last month, with group-owned sites that were open seeing collective like-for-like sales up 13.5% on August last year. But because only 65% of chain-owned restaurants that were trading back in February were open again, total sales across that part of the market were still down 10.9% on last year.
Managed pub groups, which between them had 95% of their sites trading, had a more mixed experience, with like-for-like sales down 3.6% on last August and total sales down 9.4%.
However, food-led pubs and pub restaurants prospered on the back of the Eat Out incentive, with collective like-for-likes up 5.3% on last August and total sales down just 1.2%. In contrast, drink-led pubs saw like-for-likes down 11.0% and total sales down 16.3%. Across the managed pub market as a whole, food sales were up 12%, with drink sales down 15.3% on last August.
Bar groups, which had 74% of their sites trading, had the worst of the month, with like-for-like sales down 27.6% and total sales down 37.0%.
Regionally, London still struggled over August with many office workers, commuters, tourists and international business travellers still staying away. Like-for-like sales across pubs, bars and restaurants were down 13.4%, with total sales down 28.1%. In contrast, outside the M25, the market saw like-for-like sales up 3.2% and total sales down just 7.9% on last August.
While restaurants in London recorded overall positive like-for-likes, up 2.6%, it still lagged considerably behind the rest of the country.
Delivery accounted for 8.8% of sales among the casual dining groups in the Tracker cohort in August, down from 13.1% in July, but still up on the pre-lockdown percentage of 5.9% in February.
Paul Newman, head of leisure and hospitality at RSM, said: "September is another crucial month for the sector with the furlough scheme starting to unwind and the rent moratorium due to end. Operators will be desperate for this sales momentum to continue into the autumn, but with further government-backed support looking unlikely, it seems inevitable that more job losses are just around the corner."
Trevor Watson, executive director at Davis Coffer Lyons, said: "The August figures are very much a one-off and cannot be used to indicate any trends. The boost to food-led establishments due to Eat Out to Help Out, is short term; the longer-term trend is the re-distribution in trade towards residential districts and away from commercial city centres and London in particular.
"The autumn sees the end of furlough and potentially the end of the moratorium on lease forfeiture. These twin threats are the biggest possible challenge to the industry, so although the doors are open to many pubs and restaurants, the market is more unstable than it has ever been. Pictures of people eating out in pub gardens, and healthy looking like-for-likes present a misleading and artificial impression of where the market is right now."
At the end of August, underlying annual like-for-like sales for the whole market were down 21% on the previous 12 months, with total sales down 31.9%.
A total of 51 companies, with between them 8,863 sites open for business, provided data to the August Tracker.