With a petition launched and letters sent to the UK parliament, Julia Bryce talks with leading figures in the city to get their opinions on how the hospitality industry could best be supported.
The Eat Out to Help Out scheme comes to an end across the country on Monday and while the majority of businesses have relished the opportunity to get diners into their venues, those in Aberdeen have been left feeling disappointed and frustrated that they haven’t had the chance.
The scheme under which diners are entitled to a 50% discount on sit-in meals up to the value of £10 from Monday to Wednesday, was put in place by Chancellor Rishi Sunak to encourage people to get back out and support the hospitality sector, with many firms across the nation hailing it a great success.
With Aberdeen placed in local lockdown just two full days into the scheme (August 5), it will now only have two additional days to take advantage of the government-funded initiative.
Julia Bryce speaks with Stephen Gow, general manager of The Chester Hotel, Martin Widerlechner, a duty manager at McGinty’s Group, and Khalis Miah, owner of Riksha Streetside Indian.
Khalis Miah, owner of Riksha Streetside Indian in Aberdeen’s Union Square started a petition, calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnston and the UK Parliament to reschedule the Eat Out to Help Out campaign in Aberdeen, extending it for the month of September. The city has missed out on nine days of the 13 day scheme.
The petition boasts more than 3,500 signatures and needs 5,000 to get it to the next stage. Khalis says he will keep it open indefinitely and added that he has been informed that numerous local MSPs have written to the Chancellor regarding the petition, too.
He said: “We’re all just trying to survive – it has been a really tough year for everyone. The scheme created by the government was great for encouraging people to get out. People had started to do that in Aberdeen, but within the first week of the scheme launching we were put into local lockdown so we haven’t been able to be a part of it.
“Its really important the government takes this petition seriously as a lot of the businesses in the city are independently owned and they need this sort of support. I think there was more than 100 places in Aberdeen that had registered for the scheme so the majority of the businesses were involved. For us to lose out on it is a huge loss. It was a great kick-start for a lot of firms coming out of lockdown and having people in their venues. I started to notice a lot of people coming in and mentally I was getting more motivated seeing customers enjoying the restaurant.”
Hoping the Chancellor extends the scheme into September for the city, Khalis is adamant the whole month of September should be considered.
He added: “The whole of next month would be a great idea. At the end of the day it is no loss to the government as we would have been utilising the scheme if we weren’t in local lockdown. Giving us that opportunity will really help so many small, independent businesses. A lot of firms have spent a lot of money preparing their premises in line with the regulations so there has been a lot of investment preparing for the new normal. By the time local lockdown finishes we won’t really be able to offer the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
“Boris needs to understand this is very important for Aberdeen. The city has been hit by oil downturns over the past few years and this is an opportunity to get the city thriving again.”
Martin Widerlechner, a duty manager at McGinty’s Group echoes Khalis’ stance on the scheme and said the hospitality group had benefited from the first two days of it, seeing more customers booking from Monday to Wednesday in advance.
The group is set to reopen the majority of its venues today in line with government guidelines which includes No.10 Bar & Restaurant, The Esslemont, Ferryhill House Hotel, The Silver Darling and more.
He said: “I feel like the bookings had been a lot higher for the start of the week. The bookings we have for today are higher, but I’m not sure if that is because we are reopening. There’s quite a few group bookings so maybe people are chasing the tail of the scheme. It would be fantastic if it could be extended but it’s slightly out of our hands. It would really help the businesses who haven’t been so busy.
“The government haven’t given us anything extra, but I guess it is down to whether or not Aberdeen is in the right position to be asking. The money is there so there is no reason not to extend it.
“The feedback we received when we first opened was great and I think a lot of venues were doing good things. A lot of venues are adding their own policies in, but it might not look the same across all the establishments. We don’t really need to do extra as we’ve been doing so much right that it is difficult to find the line of everyone doing the same thing. The guidance before was so vague.”
Stephen Gow, general manager of The Chester Hotel said the venue only benefited from half a day of the initiative as it is only open from Wednesdays, but isn’t sure the city will be offered further support given it was singled out for criticism before the local lockdown.
He said: “There was no money there for the Chancellor to give away, all the money is getting borrowed and I think that argument of, ‘we deserve to have the opportunity’, could be quickly refuted.
“I think if we were going to go and argue our case, it would be on a fairness basis. In general, through no fault of our own, Aberdeen was seen in a terrible light with the First Minister’s comments regarding how upset she was with the photographs and Aberdeen Football Club players. I don’t know how much support we would get from national or central government. I think the argument is around fairness rather than the money being there as every penny is borrowed.
“We missed out and maybe we were just unlucky in Aberdeen. Were we doing anything different from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee? I don’t think we were, I think it was just an unfortunate situation that occurred. It has been difficult for us all over the past three weeks and it will continue to be a challenge. It was almost a harder lockdown this time as the rest of the world kept going and we were just frozen.”
Rob Milne, owner of Kirk View Cafe & Bistro, envisioned a month’s worth of busy week days due to the scheme and was looking forward to welcoming customers back to the venue which is based on Union Terrace.
He added: “The Eat Out to Help Out scheme was going pretty well for us. We were averaging around 20 people a day as a result of it. We only really got one week of it and I knew the second week was going to be really good, but it is what it is.
“The government is giving us half of the money back, so to me, it’s a no-brainer. The reason they are doing it is because people are skint just now – some have lost their jobs or are living on furlough wages, so if they can go out and get a much cheaper meal offering fresh food at a restaurant, it really does help.
“Small private businesses like ours isn’t about making money, it is a lifestyle and something we love to do. As long as I can pay my staff wages and my bills, I am happy. We do it because we love it and supporting local businesses not only supports the venue, but the whole range of suppliers and more. You’re helping the local butcher, fisherman, fruit and veg suppliers and so on. We’re the ones flying the flag for local producers.”
As a result of local lockdown, Rob launched a takeaway service last week which sold out across the weekend. Having never wanted to offer takeaway, Rob said he and his business partner were forced into doing so as a result of not being open and generating money.
“We’ve offered a takeaway afternoon tea for a wee while but we’ve just launched our own takeaway service. Because of Nicola Sturgeon closing us down again, we’ve had no choice,” said Rob.
“We either go and get a loan or we try and make money so we’re offering takeaway and have developed a menu which will suit takeaway. It is something that has been forced on us. We’re not going to be there when the customer is enjoying it, so it is a whole new way of working for us. We’re looking forward to it. We’re just offering collection or takeaway – we’re just doing it all ourselves and not working with delivery services. We’re hoping to add some cocktails too if we can.”
Meanwhile, dozens of restaurant and cafe owners, as well as politicians and business leaders have signed a joint letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Aberdeen Hospitality Together is a new group which has been set up to give “a unified voice” to the hospitality sector and will implement new procedures and action plans to help safeguard the local industry.
The letter to the Chancellor was penned by committee member Stuart McPhee, director of Siberia Bar & Hotel, who gained more than 30 signatures which included representatives from Aberdeen Inspired, UK Hospitality, Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber Of Commerce, The Federation Of Small Businesses and Aberdeen City Council.
It asked the Chancellor to consider extending the scheme in Aberdeen and laid out how the local lockdown has hindered the city’s opportunity in being involved.
The letter signed by various Aberdeen hospitality businesses and local councillors/MSP’s