Alex’s blog: are we missing the ‘help’ in ‘eat out to help out’?

4 min read
September 17, 2020

A little while back I shared my observations of the state of the in-store shopping experience and how despite understanding that it must have been difficult for retailers to adjust to this new setting,

So wandering past a restaurant and spotting a distinct billboard advertising its continued ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ offer this month, I thought, perhaps cynically, ‘is it any better’?

After all, Eat Out to Help Out has been championed by the government to help the hospitality sector – arguably one of those that has suffered most in terms of business during the pandemic. And for us diners, what’s not to like on paper? Half price food – up to £10 – and drink (though not alcohol) every Monday to Wednesday as often as you like. The potential for a social experience and some kind of normality. And a treat to ourselves when we’ve been largely holed up in our houses.

Despite officially ending in August, a number of businesses have advertised that they are keeping it going this month. More than £100m so far has been spent through the scheme in restaurants and takeaways across the country with more than 84,000 businesses taking part – including major national chains. So I was keen to see exactly how consumers fared in what should have been a means forward to normality, and something for them to look forward to.

What we have seen

Complaints to Resolver about restaurants this year have unsurprisingly not been in the masses, given closures of more than three months for the majority of businesses in this sector. But it may surprise you that there’s been more than 3,500 of them in the past three months – specifically for dining.

What triggered me to look further into what we have received recently is the reference to Eat Out to Help Out in a significant number – just over one in 10. What has gone wrong?

Clarity on the deals themselves appear to be the main issue, along with simply not receiving the discount despite customers being assured they would. There were issues around not understanding certain dishes were excluded, or indeed certain courses, which meant confusion and disappointment when the bill arrived.

Add to that some of the deals I have heard of and seen sound well, needlessly complicated. If it takes more than a minute to work out what applies on discount for a meal then at best I’d say it’s not worth bothering. More cynically, I’d wonder if that was deliberate?

Then there’s something else which I perhaps even as a dogged consumer wasn’t quite expecting. We saw a concerning number of complaints that referenced a restaurant chain’s inclusion on the government website page covering the scheme – only to find that when they turned up to their local branch, there was a unilateral decision apparently for it to not take part.

I feel this is misleading mainly because there is little recourse. Being fair, we can’t be expecting the government to be policing this and updating its website, so how can a branch, even if it is a franchise, just exclude itself without some form of explanation before their customers make that booking – on the phone, on their website?

Our cases showed that in these instances diners often only found out when they turned up – so they were left with either turning around and walking away (not appealing if you’ve been looking forward to the meal for a little while) or staying – and paying – in full.

Feeling unwelcome

More widely around restaurant complaints, I was particularly saddened about those where customers explicitly said they were made to feel ‘unwelcome’.

Social distancing was mentioned regularly but this wasn’t always an issue of there being a lack of it – sometimes through honest mistakes such as sitting down without waiting when there was no queue we heard about customers being treated with excessive gruffness, rather than a polite conversation.

However, on the flip side, those customers blithely ignoring what are now engrained rules need to take responsibility. If we are asking restaurant staff to focus on customer experience, let’s not make it more difficult for them by being one of ‘those’ people – that we have heard about in the news – who behave irresponsibility or unreasonably when there is no need.

In a world where we have seen so much unpredictability and chaos beyond our control, surely, kindness and consideration is key, particularly if you are a business trying to keep itself going. We have all needed to make concessions – there is a lot to navigate for businesses adjusting. But customers should expect to not have those frustrations taken out on them, just as staff should expect to be treated with courtesy if they really are doing the best they can in these times.

To repeat as I started we are all aware that the government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ slogan is aimed at ‘helping’ restaurants, eateries and cafes stay on their feet, and I support this wholeheartedly.

But clarity over what is on offer – and where – is merely the minimum customers should expect. It’s also about the experience when they are there and the fair treatment on both sides. After all, if consumers are expected to support these businesses, both financially and with their feet, surely businesses can step up with good will.

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