LONDON — They say there’s no free lunch. But in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is willing to split the check — for the entire country.
In an audacious (panicky?) scheme designed to save the country’s flagging hospitality industry and tempt people fearful of the coronavirus out of their home-bunkers, the British government is offering half-off on fish and chips — and everything else on the menu, sticky toffee pudding included.
When the program was announced a few weeks ago, many were skeptical. They smelled not English sausage on the grill, but desperation, while Britain plunged into deep recession, the worst in Europe.
But the “Eat Out to Help Out” campaign, as it is officially known, has been wildly popular. In its first two weeks, the government has subsidized more than 35 million meals at 85,000 participating eateries.
As the Treasury Ministry put it, that’s “the equivalent to over half of the United Kingdom taking part and supporting local jobs.” One in ten of the country’s restaurants have signed on.
The expected total tab for taxpayers? About $650 million, tips not included.
So, if not the New Deal, it’s a Happy Meal. Instead of a make-work program, it’s a make-dinner program — which is remarkable for a Conservative Party government, as the Tories are known not for their largesse, but for a decade of austerity budgets.
The program offers customers in restaurants, pubs and cafes 50% off their food and nonalcoholic drinks, up to a maximum of 10 pounds per person, or about $13 per diner, children included. The offer is good every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in August.
You have to buy your own booze.
Customers do not need to present government vouchers or some British version of food stamps. The participating establishments just knock 50% off the bill — up to the limit — and charge the government for the rest.
The offer is good at Michelin-starred restaurants and down at the local pub. The discount works at curry houses and kebab shops, for vegan salads and mutton chops, and, as it turns out, chain fast-food joints like Starbucks, KFC and McDonald’s.
The only catch? You must dine in. No take-away.
The program has been so popular that the main complaint from restaurateurs and their wait staff appears to be they have too many customers demanding too few socially distant tables.
This past week, in London’s Battersea neighborhood, south of the River Thames, there were outdoor tables as far as the eye could see on one of the high streets.
Dan Eades, 41, who works in construction, stood in line outside an Italian restaurant, unsure if he’d get a seat.
“Look around, it’s absolutely full, there’s queues everywhere,” said Eades, gesturing up and down the street. “Some people are eating double, I heard, which is not great for their health. But a lot of people are taking advantage of the reduced bill.”
Asked if he had Johnson to thank, Eades instead credited Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak for the idea. “He’s doing a wonderful job overall, you know, in really tough times.”
So, naturally, some are calling the meal deals “Rishi’s dishes.”
Olivia Montgomery, 27, was queuing outside a bustling pizzeria, where a $15 pie was now half price. She said she’d taken up the dine-out offer each week.
“It’s getting people out,” she said. “And now that there’s a recession, I’m kind of hoping they keep it.” Montgomery said she wasn’t surprised at the response. “It’s the English, we love a bargain.”
Of course, the government effort to unlock the lockdown, to get the economy rolling again, is a tricky thing — especially after months of messaging on the importance of being alert, staying home, keeping distance.
The government relaxed its social distancing requirements from six feet to three feet in July, when it reopened pubs and restaurants in England. Now, some are asking if the “eat out” program might further increase health risks.
On social media, one wag dubbed the new food subsidy program, “Eat out to Help Herd Immunity.”
Financial Times columnist Claer Barrett wondered if the campaign “risks putting the ‘hospital’ into the hospitality experience.”
It also has not escaped notice that the”Eat Out to Help Out” campaign was announced the same week the prime minister launched Britain’s latest effort to curb obesity.
Britain is the most overweight country in Europe — and the overweight are more at risk from the virus, doctors believe. “I was too fat,” Johnson said, about his physique back in April when he was hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
And so the government ordered that junk food advertising be limited and restaurants and pubs required to post calories for food and drink.
At the same time, Johnson’s government announced that anyone who wanted to eat cheeseburgers (or kale salads) at a restaurant would have the meal subsidized by the taxpayer.
“I don’t want to come off as a kill joy,” said Amelia Lake, professor of public health nutrition at Teesside University said. “But this is mixed messaging.”
Lake said that doubtless the hospitality industry needs help, “but we know that, in general, the food eaten outside of the home is less healthy.”
Wired magazine culture editor Amit Katwala imagined the math of the bill sharing was likely to spark a bonanza of appetizer ordering and unnecessary sides.
In Battersea this past week, three 19-year-old university students were dining at Gourmet Burger Kitchen. Jamie Cundey ordered “The Mighty” — two 6-ounce patties and crispy bacon. His friend James Bulbeck pointed at the meat pile and laughed, “Taxpayer’s money!”
Chiara Ball, who was eating a bacon avocado burger, said the “eat out” program was a good way to help rebuild consumer confidence.
“It’s a chance for people to start again, it’s a good way to get back out there,” she said.
Asked if it was why the trio came out for dinner that night, she said, “Oh no, we just wanted to dine out. Our parents are driving us crazy.”
Nina Skero, chief executive at the Centre for Economics and Business Research, a forecasting think tank, called herself one of the skeptics, thinking that for many diners a small discount for a meal was not going to bring them to the table.
But Skero has been impressed seeing what’s happened at cafes and restaurants in central London. “They’re full,” she said.
More important, Skero said, are the secondary benefits of the program: “getting people into the habit of going out again, riding public transport, walking the streets.”
She added that, at least for people who were not laid off, their savings may have grown during the months of lockdown, and there is pent-up demand to spend.