Restaurants cook up new deals to get diners inside

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IT IS a trend that has taken off in London, Paris and Australia – and aims to lure diners on an otherwise quiet night of the week.

But now the Sunday night bring-your-own (BYO) movement has come to Edinburgh – one of a growing number of ploys used by restaurants to attract cash-strapped customers forced to tighten their belts as a result of the economic downturn.

Consumers have reined in spending on luxuries, such as meals out, as a result of spiralling bills and low wage increases, inspiring an innovative string of tactics used by restaurants to encourage customers through their doors.

Free children’s meals, at eateries from Pizza Hut to upmarket afternoon tea venue the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh, as well as menus that allow the diner to choose the amount they want to pay and voucher deals such as, are among the methods used by restaurants in recent months.

Last week, restaurant chain Pizza Express, one of the market leaders behind the trend for discount codes and limited special offers, launched its BYO wine deal for Sunday nights in a bid to lure in diners who see the last night of the weekend as a quiet night in. The deal is being piloted in Edinburgh, but the chain hopes to deploy it more widely.

In London and elsewhere, high-end restaurants, such as Kensington’s Michelin starred Kitchen W8, have offered BYO with no corkage fee on Sunday evenings for some time. Closer to home, the Stockbridge Restaurant in Edinburgh provides a cheaper Sunday night menu with a BYO option (albeit with £4 corkage fee).

Sarah Plater, senior innovation manager at Pizza Express, insists that the new deal is purely consumer focused (“We think it’s time to stop selling weekends short and start reclaiming Sunday nights,” Pizza Express claims in its marketing blurb, sent out to its database of Edinburgh customers last week) – but she admits that Sunday night is traditionally a quiet time for restaurants.

“On Sundays in general, people stay in, so we wanted this to be about extending the weekend and enjoying your favourite wine with your favourite pizza.” says Ms Plater. “It was previously something restaurants did if they couldn’t get a liquor licence, but BYO is definitely something that is becoming more mainstream now. I’m Australian and there it is much more common for restaurants to be bring-your-own.”

In January last year, Restaurant Mark Greenaway, now based on Edinburgh’s Castle Street after a recent move from nearby Picardy Place, asked diners to pay only what they thought the meal was worth – in a bid to attract customers in what is traditionally the slowest month of the year for fine dining.

A “suggested price” guide was on hand, but what people actually paid for their meal was up to them. However, despite the deal attracting thousands of diners, only two underpaid, chef Greenaway says.

“The message that we really wanted to put across was that dining at this level doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive,” says Greenaway. “To save the embarrassment if people wanted to pay less, we told them to leave the money on the table – or if they were paying by card, we let them put the amount they wanted in and add their pin number.”

He added: “A lot of restaurants are doing different things to get people through the doors. The key to it is perceived value.

“While what Pizza Express is doing is a good idea, it is interesting to see what people actually save – for example, if a typical bottle of wine in the restaurant is £14 and a couple brings a £7 from the supermarket – they are only saving £3.50 each, which is not a huge amount, but the point is that they feel that they are making a saving.”

However, while the “pay what it is worth” idea was successful, Greenaway is unsure whether it would work a second time.

“The danger is that if, say, the student community got wind of it, you could end up with a load of people coming in and paying £2 for a £50 meal to save cash, which wasn’t really the point,” he laughs. “But we would perhaps consider doing something a bit different.”

Last month, the upmarket Caledonian Hotel, which has recently been given a £24 million revamp by new owner Waldorf Astoria, offered a free tea for under 12s, if accompanied by two adults paying for their champagne afternoon tea.

Maison Bleue in Edinburgh’s Victoria Street has used its long history to revert to 1998 prices for a limited period to mark their 15th anniversary, while other spots, including Oban’s Piazza restaurant – have resorted to a “beat the clock” tactic, where diners are charged the same amount as the time on the clock during a certain period – for example £6.50 if they arrive at 6:50pm.

But while mainstream restaurants have had to battle and innovate to bring in the punters, supermarkets have cashed in on the budget dining market.

Research out this week from business advisory firm the NPD Group found that 46 million more “out of home” eating experiences were enjoyed at supermarkets last year compared with three years ago.

Many of these meals were ready-made takeaways – such as packet sushi or sandwiches or even ready-to-eat hot food such as curries and roasted chickens – but supermarket cafes and restaurants are also attracting more consumers with their budget menus.

Morrisons supermarket has long offered a teatime “kids eat free” menu – tempting busy, cash-strapped parents with two adult meals for £8, and free food for their children, after 4pm every night.

“Previously, more traditional restaurants would benefit from people not wanting to cook or having nothing in, but more and more consumers are answering this need with a trip to the supermarket,” said Guy Fielding, director of business development for the NPD Group.