As the chancellor’s scheme officially gets off the ground this week, Millie Milliken speaks to bars about how they are making the most of Eat Out to Help Out as they reopen their doors, from reducing menu sizes, to being creative with offers and even introducing bar food
Monday 3 August marked the first day of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘unique’ Eat Out to Help Out scheme, nearly a month after his announcement in the commons – an announcement that addressed the plight of the hospitality industry during the Covid-19 pandemic. The scheme gives customers 50% off food and soft drinks (Monday-Wednesday) while allowing venues to claim that money back, in a bid to get the public back out into hospitality spaces.
On kick-off day, UKhospitality revealed that the majority of businesses it surveyed (84%) are taking part in the scheme, and while restaurants may be the most obvious type of venue to benefit, bars are also getting in on the action to try and stabilise their businesses as they tentatively come out of lockdown.
From reducing menu sizes, to being creative with offers and even introducing bar food into their venues, businesses’ efforts are yet to be established as successes or not, but while we wait to see how the dust settles, Imbibe spoke to a number of them to find out how they have adapted to embrace Sunak’s metaphorical olive branch.
For some venues already offering food, perhaps the first most obvious step would be to reduce their pre-Covid offering. It’s something that Manchester’s Quarter House Beer & BBQ has implemented since reopening. ‘We have reduced the size of the menu by roughly half,’ says Emilia Kolbjørnsen, head of sales and marketing at Northern Hospitality. Before lockdown, the venue had around 50 dishes on its menu, including starters and desserts which have also been removed, for now. ‘This allows all orders to [more easily] come via an app which links directly to both the bar and the kitchen with all payments taken upfront.’
It has also implemented more serving staff to allow for a slicker table service, while even ignoring the £10 cap on the government’s discount and offering 50% off entire bills. Kolbjørnsen predicts that this new menu will stay in place until November 2020.
For Mathew Pugh, owner of Worcester’s The Firefly beerhaus (which serves real ales, craft beers and vegan food), however, while the menu size hasn’t dramatically changed, thought has gone into the efficiency of making specific dishes in order to determine what stays and what – temporarily – goes.
I'm pushing a beer offer if people eat: two pints of Camden’s To The Pub pale ale for a fiver. So, all in [it is] burger, sides, two pints, [for a] tenner! [It’s] like going back to 2006…
‘[There’s been] no massive change really,’ he tells Imbibe. ‘I slimmed the menu down a bit to keep it easier for the kitchen. Prior to lockdown we were doing vegan cheese toasties on thick Alex Gooch sourdough, but they took at least 20 minutes and a lot of attention to get right, so for now I've removed those. Apart from that the menu is the same.’
He’s also introducing a beer offer to help make the numbers add up. ‘It works out £10 normally for a burger or dog with sides, [so with the discount] it makes it a fiver. I'm pushing a beer offer if people eat: two pints of Camden’s To The Pub pale ale for a fiver. So, all in [it is] burger, sides, two pints, [for a] tenner! [It’s] like going back to 2006…’
While bars already serving food have been down-scaling and switching up their menus, some are introducing food for the first time. When Swift's second site opened in Shoreditch opened in July 2020 its award-winning drinks came with a small but well-planned food offering inspired by bars around the world.
'We were hoping to extend and build on the brand of Swift, to complement an already fantastic bar,' said Bobby Hiddleston who opened the branch with Mia Johansson, Roisin Stimpson and Edmund Weil. 'We got the opportunity to add items like brunch, breakfast and great coffee, and took inspiration from cities like Sydney and Paris.'
The bar sells coffee and pastries during the day, as well as toasties and waffles (article main picture) which Hiddleston says 'fit nicely into the government scheme'. For a coffee and a doughnut, customers only pay £2.50, while a three-cheese toastie with house kimchi will only set them back £5.
With a small and simple offering, Hiddleston and co have also been savvy in not hiring a chef. 'We have made our food offering simple enough to be made by the team,' he explains. 'This is because hiring a chef in a bar is a huge risk, especially at the moment. It’s a good thing for bars to be offering food, but it’s easy to forget that food is perishable and if people don’t buy it, then wastage will make a big menu unsustainable.'
Already established Homeboy in Islington will be introducing food to the bar later this month. Irish owners Aaron Wall and Ciarán Smith have hired chef Michael Williams (previously of Chiltern Firehouse) to run the kitchen.
There are two types of businesses: ones that batten down the hatches and try survive, [and] ones that try to give their guests another great reason to leave the house. We aim to be the latter
'Food has always been in our plans for Homeboy,' Wall tells Imbibe. 'We have decided to introduce this now because having seen [the] recession in Ireland back in 2008, we recognise there are two types of businesses: ones that batten down the hatches and try survive, [and] ones that try to give their guests another great reason to leave the house. We aim to be the latter.'
What that offering will look like is yet to be seen, but Wall confirms that Homeboy will be taking part in the Eat Out Help Out scheme. He advises that other bars looking to bring food into the mix are clever about investing in new plans: 'The industry is full of people that are great for advice, and that if it doesn’t make sense to buy brand new kitchen equipment then buy second hand.'
For Swift's Hiddleston, having food in bars is something he thinks should be the norm. 'I think most bars should serve food. London is a great city for food and a great city for bars, but not enough places do both well. We are open all day so it makes complete sense to have a more comprehensive offering.'