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Please, Chancellor, can restaurants have a little more help?

The Eat Out scheme has been a lifeline but serving up a short-term rental boost would be a real boon

The Eat Out to Help Out
The Eat Out to Help Out scheme has enabled the sector to get back on its feet but the Government needs to offer rental assistance as well

There were too many mediocre restaurants in Britain, even before Covid-19 came along, offering neither value to customers nor a particularly rewarding workplace for staff.

It may surprise you to hear this from a restaurateur, but it won’t be a bad thing to see such businesses fall by the wayside. Indeed, many already have.

However, there will be a bright future for the genuinely innovative and inspirational members of our industry – so long as Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, can provide a little more short-term assistance until the worst of the pandemic has passed.

August’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme has been a great success, making restaurants more accessible to millions of people. Many eateries, such as my own – Gaucho and M Restaurants – are now extending the scheme into September at our own cost, offering diners 50pc off up to £10 each on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

In my restaurants alone, about 40,000 hungry guests have used the scheme, proving the demand exists to keep things going.

Nonetheless, there remains a considerable void in some city centres – particularly London’s West End and the Square Mile. Too many corporations are discouraging staff from returning to the office and the abyss of tourism remains a huge concern. It could be months until the situation improves, and there is little point in the Government backing the industry with Eat Out to Help Out, only to let it collapse in the months running up to, hopefully, the rollout of a successful vaccine.

The lease forfeiture moratorium which protected my sector from over-aggressive landlords for the past six months gave breathing space for tenants and landlords to begin negotiations on current and future rental agreements. However, neither party seems able to afford to take a full hit on this “rent hangover”.

When you see restaurants packed with bargain-hunters on upcoming Mondays to Wednesdays, it is easy to forget what the hospitality sector has endured and, indeed, is still to endure – an entire quarter of zero trading receipts, followed by further months of restricted and reduced trading, compounded by the requirement to pay six months’ back rent plus quarter four rent in advance come September!

It is little wonder that lobby groups from both sides, UK Hospitality and the British Property Foundation, are proposing “a third – a third – a third” policy. This would see tenants enjoy a 66pc reduction in rent for quarters two, three and four in 2020 – supported by a 33pc contribution to landlords by the Government, which would result in landlords also taking a hit of 33pc but all parties on the whole surviving. Since our doors have reopened, it has felt as if society has never appreciated hospitality so much.

Each service feels like a celebration of fantastic food, wine, company, and freedom! The Eat Out to Help Out scheme has amplified this feeling of goodwill and made me more convinced than ever that there is a strong future for large parts of the industry – from comfortable and affordable high quality gastro-pubs (The Cricketers on the Green in Pirbright, Surrey, is the exemplar of this), to clever virtual and grab-and-go brands (such as Honest Burgers, Pizza Pilgrims) and celebratory dining and corporate entertainment brands such as my own.

Brands underpinned by ethical values, regarding how they source food to how they treat their staff, will have an increasing competitive advantage and get back into strong financial shape in the years ahead.

The restaurant sector has been due a reset for some time, and it is being accelerated by Covid-19. The innovative and entrepreneurial will step up, while those who have taken their employees and guests for granted will fall away.

This is a perfectly reasonable outcome in a competitive marketplace, but in the short-term, with coronavirus still devastating the playing field, a little more help is needed to prevent the wider industry from permanent harm.

The Government must understand that an adjustment in both rental expectations and rates charges will be necessary to keep the good guys going.

 

Martin Williams is the chief executive of Gaucho and M Restaurants. The opinions expressed are personal and do not represent the Rare Restaurants Group. Instagram: @martinwilliams32

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