Will Rishi's dishes save the hospitality trade?
It's late morning at Millie's Place, and the cafe is buzzing. After being forced to close for more than three months during the coronavirus outbreak, customers are finally returning in their droves.
"On Monday we had double the number coming in compared to a week ago," says waitress Phoebe Dodd. Which might be something to do with the fact that the Government's new 50 per cent discount scheme also came into force on Monday.
In an attempt to revive the hospitality sector, which has suffered more than most at the hands of the pandemic, Chancellor Rishi Sunak last month launched the headline-grabbing scheme entitled Eat Out to Help Out. Under the plan, the Government is offering subsidised meals in pubs, restaurants and cafes on the normally quiet days of Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout August.
Of course, telling people it is their patriotic duty to enjoy cut-price meals out is not the hardest sell in the world, and it seems many people in the West Midlands are happy to, ahem, step up to the plate.
That has certainly been the experience at Millie's Place, in the centre of Bridgnorth.
"A lot more people are now coming in to sit down," says Phoebe. "When we first reopened, it was mainly for take-outs."
The experience has been similar at Vanilla Coffee in Tettenhall, near Wolverhampton. Owner Carole Ashworth says the initial response has been fantastic, and she seems quite excited by how it has captured the public's imagination. She says the number of visitors coming through the doors this week have shown a marked increase.
"It’s been like a Saturday on a Monday as we’ve been that busy with people coming in," she says.
Steve Abbott, of The Peach Tree in Shrewsbury, is also positive about the scheme. “We are really excited and happy to be taking part in the Government scheme,” he says.
The uptake has certainly been high. Mr Sunak claims 72,000 businesses across the UK have signed up, and the scheme's official website lists thousands of venues across the West Midlands. Big chains such as Nandos, Pizza Express, McDonald's and Ask Italian, Subway and KFC have all signed up, as have J D Wetherspoon and Greene King. At the other end of the spectrum, prestige restaurant chain The Ivy – which has a branch in Birmingham – and the prestigious Belfry Hotel in Sutton Coldfield are also offering up to £10 off meals.
Under the scheme, anybody eating out Monday to Wednesday will automatically be given 50 per cent off their bill for food and non-alcoholic drinks, up to a maximum of £10. No vouchers are necessary, and it will be up to the businesses to claim the money from the Government.
But while the discount is capped at £10 per head, there are ways to save even more money. For example, American Express card holders can save a further £5 if their venue has signed up to the operator's 'Shop Small' initiative, which seeks to support small business. While finding a pub, cafe or restaurant signed up to both schemes will narrow the field, it does mean it is possible to enjoy a £20 meal for just £5.
But while there are plenty of venues that have signed up to the scheme, not everyone has found it worthwhile. Ken Lavender, who runs The Crown at Claverley, has not ruled out taking part, but is not convinced it will be necessary.
"Our prices, I feel are already pretty cheap, on a £7 meal it's not going to make that much difference," he says. "Even with £10 off the places up the road, they are still going to be dearer than us."
And while there are plenty of people jumping at the chance of eating out on a budget, the scheme is not without its critics. Veteran beer writer Roger Protz, who edited the Campaign for Real Ale's Good Beer Guide for 24 years, believes the main beneficiaries will be the big pub chains such as J D Wetherspoon. And he warns it could even put some of the traditional, small community pubs out of business.
"Some of the small pubs in rural areas don't even have a kitchen, so they can't offer meals," he says. "I fear unfair competition for wet-led pubs."
Mr Protz says it would be fairer if the discounts were extended to include alcoholic drinks. But given that the scheme has already raised one or two eyebrows at a time the nation is said to be battling with an obesity crisis, would it not be a very brave move for any government to encourage people to go out and drink more? Mr Protz disagrees.
"People do not generally go out and get drunk in their lunch hour," he says. "I think people in Britain are very responsible in what they drink, despite the headlines."
There have also been concerns that by subsidising people to have sit-down meals, the scheme could actually be harmful to takeaways, which are not eligible.
George Pitsillos. who keeps Hill Top Fish Bar in West Bromwich, admits it cost him some trade, but is not too worried.
"I suppose it might make a difference on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays," he says.
"I don't think it's going to do me much harm. If people go to eat out in restaurants, that's expensive. Even at half price, it means instead of paying £40, it will be £20, and some people don't have that kind of money."
He adds that business has been brisk since reopening, actually higher than it was before the lockdown.
"I think the scheme is a good thing, getting people to go out and spend money in restaurants," he says.
There is no doubt the scheme is proving popular, and it could prove a lifeline for the casual dining sector, which was struggling even before the lockdown.
But Mr Protz hopes that the Government will not forget the plight of the traditional, beer-only pubs, which were fighting for survival before the pandemic, and could now find the future even more difficult.
He says: "If you have been out of business for four months, to come back and see the Wetherspoon down the road doing a roaring trade on the back of cut-price meals, I think it could push them over the edge."