On Eating Out to Help Out

The UK Government ran an interesting promotion called “Eat Out to Help Out” for the month of August. Meals eaten in a restaurant, pub or cafe (including soft drinks, but only soft drinks) were eligible for a 50% discount up to a maximum of £10 per person; the customer would pay 50% and the restaurant could claim the remaining 50% of the price back from the Government. The restaurant doesn’t pay anything (apart from the administrative cost of giving the discount and claiming it – there were multiple occasions where I’ve heard staff explain to a diner why the calculation wasn’t as they expected – and possibly some cash-flow/time-value-of-money concerns).

My initial reaction to this was that it was a nice bonus, along the line of “every little helps”. The phrase “bread and circuses” did come to mind, though for me at least this doesn’t really move the needle of my political opinions much. I could see how it could stimulate the economy at least in the short term (granted, with a risk of making the COVID-19 situation worse: the Soho area was extremely packed on the evenings I went there). That said, I also noted that it was a little bit limited in that the rebates are proportional to one’s existing expenditures on food, which may be a (faulty) proxy for existing standard of living. A person who can’t afford to eat out at all can’t benefit, and my individual meals usually cost more like £10 and so I might benefit less than someone whose meals do regularly hit that threshold.

Furthermore, there was no restriction on the number of times the promotion could be used, meaning that one could have an appetiser in one bill, a main course in a second, a dessert in a third and all the soft drinks in a fourth, potentially getting a £40 per head discount (and this could be extended even further if one goes for a tapas-style meal, for instance)! There were also some further loopholes, such as taking away leftovers, and the timing of Sunday dinner (if the bill is issued after midnight, it is Monday and so the discount applies).

Nonetheless, given the scheme was in place it is something I can appreciate, and I figured I might as well enjoy its benefits (while taking appropriate precautions to mitigate risks of actually catching COVID i.e. social distancing, masks, sanitiser, avoiding excessively busy places). I pay a fair chunk of Income Tax plus the odd bit on dividends and capital gains, so in a sense this is reclaiming some of that, especially since I’d expect taxes to rise soon in the light of needing to pay for stimulating policies, this one included. I ate out considerably more than I would have normally – this meant going out for some lunches on days without a lot of meetings, and some dinners at 7.30 or 8 pm after work (instead of eating at 6 pm and then having a short evening session). I figured that the government subsidised my meals to the tune of about £200 over the 13 days of the promotion. However, one could potentially squeeze in 10 restaurant visits per week for the 4 full weeks, and 4 visits on the final Monday, for a total of 44 visits – £440 if one spends £10 at each place, and possibly more because of the aforementioned exploits.

Of course, a consequence of this is that my August food budget went through the roof. My meals at home in terms of raw ingredients probably rarely cost in excess of £3. Although it’s not exactly logical, I often found myself ordering embellishments or more premium options to get the bill close to either side of £20; that is still a cost of £10 to me. My average expenditure on eating out was £190 in the three months to August but £325 in August; on the other hand, for groceries it was £300 in the three months to August and £230 in August. I mitigated some of the costs here by stacking offers – most notably, American Express had a Shop Small promotion that offers £5 off a £10 expense at selected retailers, so £20 becomes £10 from Eat Out to Help Out, and then £5.

In terms of the food itself, it wasn’t as much of an adventure as I originally thought it might be, perhaps because I was tired out from work and was also alone for most of the promotion; I met Tom on the last day for pizza but I think that was it. I didn’t actually end up trying any new places as part of this – it looks to be a string of familiar and comfortable establishments. I ate a lot of Japanese food. I had ramen at three different places (Kanada-Ya, Tonkotsu and the Japan Centre), sushi on a number of occasions (Sagamiya, Sushimania, Dozo and even Wasabi), and other cooked dishes (Eat Tokyo for grilled meats and fish, Coco Ichibanya for Japanese curry, Zen Cafe for melon pans). Four Seasons roast duck and 97 Old Town salted fish and chicken fried rice made the cut too. I also visited pubs a bunch of times (for food; alcoholic drinks weren’t included as part of the promotion). I think my preferences when eating out tend to result in this because a lot of these dishes are difficult for me to make (or make well) at home.

The promotion in terms of the Government subsidising diners has ended, though a number of restaurants and cafes are still continuing with this policy into September, some in a reduced form (e.g. 20 or 25% off instead of 50%, or only including a subset of the days or mealtimes). I haven’t sought out any of these yet, though, and have eaten at home a fair bit more this month – I do like my cooking enough that I would miss it if I don’t get to eat it for some time.

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