- By: Deepali Nandwani
Pl note: We have video interviews with five of the UK’s and India’s rockstar chefs and restaurateurs. Please scroll down to hear Chef Rohit Ghai, Chef Rahul Akerkar, Gauri Devidayal, Zorawar Kalra and Chef Jomon Kuriakose speak about EOHO and the future of dining.
July 2020, as the UK, much like other countries, struggled to open, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak sat in his House of Commons office in Westminster, wondering how he could help jumpstart the country’s restaurant industry.
He is a connoisseur of London’s eating out culture and its multifarious restaurants, which was now facing an existential crisis, much like it was in the rest of the world. He hit upon what he thought was a perfect idea: An Eat Out to Help Out (EOHO) scheme, all through August, to infuse much-needed oxygen into the bloodstream of the hospitality businesses, boost confidence, and encourage people back to the high street, wherein the government footed 50% of the bill, which amounted to £10 per person.
By all means, the UK government has extended other financial support to the industry that employs an estimated 1.5 million people: A furlough scheme for workers, cutting VAT to 5% from standard 20%, a business rates holiday and small business grants, and the cherry on the cake—temporary changes to licensing laws and outdoor seating under Business and Planning Act 2020, which would make it easier for restaurants and pubs to seat and serve customers outdoors.
But the EOHO scheme proved to be the most popular; it has helped bring people out of their cloistered homes and into the restaurants.
Did it have the desired effect?
Going by the number of people who came out to eat in those days, sure! And it got cash back into the hands of restaurateurs.
Jes Staley, CEO, Barclays Bank, said that spending data collected by the bank suggested that the scheme had given a real boost to the sector.
Many restaurateurs believe that EOHO has given them hope to hold on and continue functioning. Stephen Wall, Managing Director and Co-founder, Pho, says, “It benefited our early-week figures and seems to have encouraged the British public to dine out safely, as our restaurants filled up and then stayed busy throughout the weekend, too.”
Jason Atherton, a Michelin-starred chef, offered guests lunch at a bargain price of £12 for two courses at his relaxed central London bistro, Social Eating House. Before lockdown, you would be able to buy a set lunch menu of two courses for £22 and pay £28 for three courses. The menu featured roast mackerel, apple vinegar pickle, fresh green apple and golden raisins. “The scheme was a shot-in-arm for the restaurant industry; it was also a good token to help people, who had lived a life of isolation over the last few months, to come out and hang out with friends,” he says.
Aquavit London, a Michelin-starred Nordic diner in Soho, which usually offers a two-course lunch menu priced at £29 and three courses at £32, was serving the same meals at £19 and £22 respectively.
Michelin-starred Chef Rohit Ghai (he won a Michelin star for Jamavar London), who now runs the fine-dine, Kutir, and street-food diner, KoolCha at Wembley’s BOXPARK, believes that while the furlough and EOHO schemes helped UK’s restaurants to stabilise, they are now facing bigger challenges. “The food scene has completely changed, the rental, particularly in London, is very high, and a lot of restrictions will follow. Would this make fine dining viable? We will see a considerable amount of shakeout. Even I am thinking very seriously about the viability of reopening Kutir.”
Watch Chef Rohit Ghia speak about the uphill task the restaurant industry in the UK continues to face and how the food scene will evolve.
EOHO has offered one neighbourhood a template for revival: Chinatown, where restaurants were hardest hit by COVID19, has found some sort of positive outcome from the move to allow outdoor dining and EOHO. Over 60% of restaurants in Chinatown have opened up.
Many fine-dine restaurants, which participated in the scheme, have also begun making changes to their offerings and menus and managed to get some of their staff back on board. Michelin-starred Shoreditch restaurant, The Clove Club, is reopening with a tasting menu that many restaurants had begun ditching before the lockdown. Tasting menus help restaurants to considerably save the costs of raw materials.
Extending beyond the scheme
While the UK government has decided not to extend the scheme beyond August, many restaurants have begun offering some version of the EOHO scheme.
*The Catherine Wheel in Hart Street, Henley, has launched ‘Stay Out to Help Out’, under which the price of food and drink is reduced from Monday to Wednesday until November 11.
*Jayne Worrall, owner of Bull in Wargrave, is offering a 25% discount on food from Monday to Wednesday during all of September.
*Jaipur Spice, an Indian restaurant in York and Easingwold, has extended the scheme for a month, with 25% off on their food, up to a maximum of £10 per diner.
*UK-wide chains such as Harvester, Toby Carvery, Tesco Café, Bill’s, Pizza Hut and Prezzo have also decided to extend the scheme.
When chefs stepped out
Interestingly some of the UK’s best chefs stepped out to dine at their favourite restaurants all of August, perhaps taking advantage of the scheme. Among them was Simon Rogan, Chef-patron of L’Enclume, who went to The Drunken Duck Inn, near Ambleside, a town in England. ‘I had a delicious Duck Confit with Scotch Egg and Plum Sauce, a roasted Abalone Mushroom with Saffron Risotto and Pesto. It was refreshing to see vegan and vegetarian options treated with so much respect. It is good to see a legendary Lakes restaurant at its best after such a trying time. A scheme like this offers chefs and owners some confidence.”
Chef Jomon Kuriakose, Chef de Cuisine, The Lalit London, known for creating a modern narrative for Indian food, believes that many families like his stepped out to eat at neighbourhood restaurants, inspired by the UK government’s decision to help the industry.
“Many restaurants registered for the scheme. I went to one of the high street restaurants. Generally, Monday to Wednesday is a “dead time” of the week, as we say in restaurateur parlance. But I found most restaurants were packed. They stopped taking reservations because there were mile-long queues outside. The scheme brought life and colour back to local markets. Not only did local shops make brisk sales, even restaurants that had not registered for EOHO benefited because they received spillovers of people who did not find space in restaurants that were part of the scheme.”
Watch Chef Kuriakose talk about the UK’s evolving restaurant scheme and what he plans for The Lalit London when it opens up its restaurant, Baluchi, to diners in September.
The other side of the story
Some of the critique the scheme faced: Businesses that hired new staff to manage extra demand face the prospect of tighter restrictions due to growing COVID cases, which means they would have to let some of the staff go again. Many say that instead of resorting to such schemes, governments need to settle for the long haul by evolving a consistent policy.
In the UK, COVID cases are inching up and there is speculation about the effect EOHO may have had on the rising graph. Maybe, a better idea would have been to spread the scheme out across the week—with different restaurants being part of it on different days—so that people did not crowd on just those three days.
What lessons can India draw from the UK’s experiments in reopening restaurants?
Unlike the West, the Indian government has done very little to help the industry. “But that is understandable, given that India does not have deep coffers to offer such schemes,” says Zorawar Kalra, Founder & CEO, Massive Restaurants (Masala Library, Farzi Café, BO-TAI, KODE, MasalaBar, Made in Punjab, and more).
Putting it in context for India, Riyaaz Amlani, CEO, Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Ltd contends that while the supply side will solve itself, the government needs to work on the demand end.
The Indian industry faces several challenges. The first among them: No clear roadmap and support from the Indian government, unlike in the UK where the state has gone all out to help the industry find its feet.
Gauri Devidayal, Restaurateur and Co-Founder, Food Matters India Pvt Ltd (The Table, Mag Street Kitchen, Mag Street Bakery, The Farm at Alibaug, Miss T, Iktara), says, “The decision by the UK government to launch the EOHO initiative helped to keep kitchen fires burning. It was the need of the hour. In India, we have been disappointed by the government’s weak response. While I understand that India’s population is exponentially higher, there has to be some advice, some idea on how we can survive. For instance, excise licenses get renewed in March every year and that is a huge financial outlay for us. We pay up for the entire year. Forget any discussion on a rebate, there is no conversation revolving around what happens to the excise license we paid up for 2020. Does it get rolled over to the next year? The problem lies not just in ‘no action’, but also in lack of communication.”
Watch Gauri Devidayal talk about launching a gourmet delivery-only dining project bang in the middle of the pandemic, what we can learn from the UK, and National Restaurant Association of India’s (NRAI) ‘Rise for Restaurants’ scheme.
Even the best of Indian restaurants are struggling to stay afloat. Chef-restaurateur Rahul Akerkar, the man known for the iconic Indigo and now, Qualia, says he has not paid this month’s rent. “That the situation in India is terrible is an understatement. Restaurants that don’t have reserves will find it hard to survive. Most restaurants exist hand-to-mouth. We have resorted to deliveries to keep the premises operational and generate some income for the team, but it is not sustainable.”
The point of frustration, he says, is the uncertainty surrounding how long the lockdown may continue or what the contours of the openings will be. “I think besides EOHO, the fact that the UK government paid 80 to 85% of people salaries, helped them to live. There is also some clear policy direction. Here, we hear different things at different times, and most of it makes no sense. If you are opening restaurants, let them stay open till late so that they can stagger entries. What is the point of asking them to shut at 9 pm or not allow them to serve alcohol? I understand the need for lockdowns, but we have to weigh them against the economy, the jobs and need to get on with our lives. We need to open up mindfully.”
Watch Rahul Akerkar speak about what we are doing wrong, what we can learn from the UK’s initiatives and how we can open effectively.
Kalra, whose Massive Restaurants has a presence across eight countries (with Farzi Café) including England, the Middle East and yet-to-open Bangladesh, reflecting about what the UK did right, says, “EOHO was a brilliant idea to kickstart an encumbered industry. What I found interesting is how the UK managed to, in one swoop, for the first time in the history of mankind, managed to turn the weekend upside down, by moving to Monday to Wednesday. People came out, dined and hung out with friends. People even began coming out on the weekends.”
While claiming that India’s financial situation doesn’t allow it to extend such financial support to restaurants, he believes there are several steps that the government can take to help. “No 1, relook at the GST policies. Then, use the ESIC coffers to pay staff and offer zero-interest loans.”
Restaurateur A D Singh (Olive bar and kitchen, Olive Bistro and Olive Beach, Monkey Bar, Fatty Bao, Toast and Tonic, Guppy, Ek Bar, Lady Baga) contends that the restaurant industry in India, directly and indirectly, supports about 20 million jobs and needs to be one of the top priorities for the Indian government.
The voices asking the Indian government to support the industry — if not with schemes such as EOHO, then at least with better policies, guidance on critical issues such as excise taxes, the utilization of ESIC funds for staff payment, and a policy that allows restaurants to breathe and function, once they open, instead of being shackled by ridiculous policies—have been getting sharper.