‘No-win situation' for fully booked operators in customer firing line over Eat Out to Help Out

18 August 2020 by
‘No-win situation' for fully booked operators in customer firing line over Eat Out to Help Out

Operators have been bearing the brunt of would-be diners' frustrations at finding restaurants fully booked during the government's Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

During the first two weeks of the scheme, which launched at the beginning of August, more than 35 million discounted meals have been claimed at some 85,000 participating restaurants, according to government figures published today.

But the UK's renewed appetite to eat out is not necessarily helping out all operators, according to Simon Hulstone, owner of the Elephant, in tourist hot-spot Torquay, who told The Caterer his staff had been on the receiving end of abuse from holidaymakers who had found the restaurant fully booked.

He said: "Staff are getting a lot of grief on the phone – people don't understand we're fully booked. When they are told ‘we're full', they say, ‘but we're trying to help you out'."

Operating in a seasonal location, Hulstone said there would be "something wrong" if the restaurant was not fully booked during the summer months, adding that for operators in such locations running the scheme during the autumn and winter would have been preferable.

He added: "Initially it was a fantastic idea to fill the tables, but we're getting swamped by staycationers, so we have day-trippers and over-nighters. We didn't expect France and Spain to be closed, too, so everyone's coming to Devon and Cornwall. "No complaints, it's fantastic for the area but it's a little bit daunting with the pandemic going on.

"It's the usual locals versus tourist scenario – we're in a no-win situation but we don't need grief from people."

Similarly in London, the initiative's popularity has left hospitality businesses struggling with would-be diners frustrated at being turned away or not being offered the table of their choice.

Adam Handling of Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden, told The Caterer that after he sent an e-shot to customers announcing they were extending the scheme's £10 cap to £20, the restaurant was fully booked in 10 minutes.

Handling, who recently launched a ‘Toad on the Road' menu championing dishes made from surplus ingredients from the restaurant's tasting menu, said: "I extended it to give back to the people who gave back to me."

Yet despite Handling's generous intentions, he was given a one-star review on Google by a party who could not be seated when they turned up without a booking as the restaurant was opening for service at 5:30pm. Handling said the party left without eating or experiencing the restaurant and still posted the negative review which he found "upsetting and difficult to comprehend".

On social media there have also been reports of operators struggling to control groups of diners who secretly book multiple tables and join them together when they arrive, breaking social distancing guidelines and exasperating neighbouring guests.

Neither is the impact of the staycation boom without its drawbacks, it seems. After months cooped up at home during lockdown and with holidays cancelled, the public's desire to get out and celebrate is clear.

Yesterday the BBC reported that a campsite in the Lake District had been forced to close after being inundated with "Covid campers" treating it like a mini festival and leaving "mounds of rubbish" including tents and camping furniture.

UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls responded to the reports and tweeted: "We need everyone to take responsibility for their own actions."

Image: Shutterstock

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