Hazel Mollison: Big stores cut into restaurant profits as the customers win

IT COULD hardly be simpler – pop the roast in the oven, dessert in the fridge and uncork the bottle of wine. Once the Easter eggs are cleared out of the way, many of us will be sitting around the table and enjoying a traditional family meal – cooked by Tesco, Asda or Marks & Spencer.

And we'll have the smug satisfaction of knowing we've done it all for a fraction of what it would have cost to eat out.

Whether it's a half-price roast or Indian feast for a fiver, there's no end of choice for those of us who want a break from cooking without the expense of going out.

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With the supermarkets scrambling to offer the most tempting deals, more and more of us are shunning restaurants for special occasions such as Easter, Mother's Day and Valentine's Day.

M&S started the trend last year with their hugely popular "dine in for two for 10" promotion – offering a credit-crunch beating two courses and a bottle of wine for a tenner. Now all their major competitors have followed suit, offering everything from cut-price family feasts to romantic dinners for two.

The humble ready meal is becoming more than a quick time saver, and is promoted as a cheap alternative to a night out. It's not just microwave lasagne – shelves are heaving with such dishes as chicken chasseur or steak au poivre, with seasonal vegetables on the side.

These deals may be good for our pockets but they're bad news for the city's restaurateurs as they battle the recession

, eating into their increasingly slender profit margins. There has been little good news for the industry, with takings across the country as a whole down by 4 per cent last year compared to 2008. The result has been more bargains for us, with many restaurants introducing more cut-price weeknight deals in order to compete.

Liz Logie-MacIver, a lecturer in retail marketing at Edinburgh Napier University, says many supermarket meal deals are loss leaders to tempt shoppers in.

"They will raise the prices on the little extras, such as coffee or bread, that people buy to go with them," she says. "The seasonal deals have been very successful, such as turkey and wine for Christmas and another one for Mother's Day. There does seem a shift among consumers. They are looking for good quality. A lot will use the internet to look for the best deals.

"There is a lot of psychology involved. People use food to compensate when things aren't going well in the rest of their lives, and it's easy to give in to temptation. If it's all for 10, then you feel less guilty about it. It's definitely having an effect on restaurants, although they are trying to fight back with offers of their own."

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Market research company Horizons reckons most people now eat out on average once or twice a week, a small decrease on the previous year. More formal restaurants have suffered most, while budget-friendly fast-food outlets have become more popular.

People are also cutting the cost when they do go out, with many skipping the starter, sharing a dessert and ordering wine by the glass rather than the bottle.

Drinks industry research also shows that people are spending less in pubs and restaurants, but splashing out on more expensive bottles at home.

Malcolm Duck, chairman of the Edinburgh Restaurateurs' Association, says competition from supermarkets is hitting hard, and notes that restaurant meals are subject to VAT but ready meals aren't, meaning it is not a level playing field.

"We've come through a very tough time," he says. "There's no doubt people are staying in more, and supermarkets are pushing people to eat at home rather than eat out. They can sell pre-made food which isn't subject to VAT, and wine more cheaply than I can buy it. It makes our lives significantly more difficult.

"I was speaking to a vegetable salesman the other day who now says he feels like a debt collector. That says it all."

But Peter Backman, managing director of Horizons, believes the fall in customers is mainly an effect of the recession, and there are signs it will gradually pick up.

He said: "When you go out to eat, it's not just about the food. It's about the atmosphere, the service and the chance to talk to friends. When you take that away, you're just left with the food, which is what the supermarkets are offering.

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"In the longer term, occasions such as Easter, Valentine's Day and Christmas are crucial to restaurants, and I don't think that's going to decline. It also depends on the weather and what's in fashion – and the popular restaurants will all be full."

While the competition is tough for the food industry, for customers – in or out – there are plenty of reasons to celebrate.