The government's Eat Out to Help Out restaurant scheme has been heralded a success as millions of Britons kickstarted the ailing hospitality industry with discounted midweek meals.
But as chancellor Rishi Sunak celebrates 35 million half-price meals being served across the UK, it emerged on Tuesday that a number of restaurants are avoiding the scheme because of the rude and hostile behaviour of customers.
Several establishments have already pulled out of the scheme, which is running on Mondays to Wednesdays throughout August, a little over two weeks since it was introduced.
Some 85,000 restaurants signed up to the government-backed initiative, which enables restaurants to take off 50% from the bill, up to £10, and then claim the money back, but several owners have spoken out about levels of “hostility” towards staff since it started.
Yahoo News UK spoke to one waitress who said some waiting staff are counting down the days until the scheme is over, such is the behaviour of some “entitled” customers.
Mimi Smithson is used to serving up food to hungry customers, having waitressed for three years – but she is not used to having the food waved back at her as soon as it was brought to the table.
The 22-year-old recalls one recent moment where an angry mother shouted at her about the difference between her two sons’ burgers – while waving them in her face.
She explained: “One burger was an adult classic and a child’s plain burger.
“She said ‘look at these, they look exactly the same! I don’t understand why I have to pay more for the adult burger when they look the same!’
“While shouting at me she held the burger in my face and was picking it apart while flapping the bun open and closed…
“The son had ordered it completely plain, so of course the burgers would look the same when you don’t order it with garnishes.”
The woman and her family ended up eating all their food, but left without paying.
Smithson, who works in a family gastro pub in Surrey, said incidents like this made her feel “frustrated” as a waitress – as diners packed out the restaurant to make the most of discounted meals.
She said: “I have been waitressing for three years and I have never experienced anything like this scheme.
“Not being able to satisfy customers and receiving complaints from almost everyone I interact with is frustrating as I’m just the person who brings the food and tries to create good service.”
She explained that waiting staff were dealing with about 50 tables full of customers – with some diners thinking they were entitled to more than a 50% discount.
Smithson explained: “The scheme invites a lot of people who want to have a completely free meal, which is very frustrating as this is our livelihoods…
“I think in theory the idea works and is a good thing for the economy, however I’m finding the workers on the ground are being overworked and abused by rude customers because of it.”
She added: “At least twice a day on the days the scheme is active, customers tend to try and debate me on the price of their bill, thinking they were going to get more off when it is clear the maximum you can get off is £10…
“Most of the time the bill is correct and they ate all their food, but still expect more money off.”
Smithson’s experiences are not unique; waitress Claudia Casey told Yahoo News UK that she had endured her “worst night of my eight years in the hospitality industry”.
She revealed that staff have “had a lot of eye rolls”, with some customers “turning their backs to us” when told some items on the menu had sold out.
More than 35 million half-price meals have been served by restaurants across the UK in the first two weeks of the scheme.
With restaurants working at full capacity, Smithson said it is “virtually impossible to give every single table the attention and service they were hoping for”.
Some restaurants who have pulled out of Eat Out to Help Out have argued that the scheme should go on for longer than August – but Mimi’s experiences so far have led her to disagree.
She said: “I don’t know if scrapping it would be detrimental, however extending it sounds like hell to me as we have all been saying the sooner it’s over the better.”
Recent Treasury figures showed that around 48,000 different claims have so far been made by restaurants for money back since the scheme started.
The Treasury urged people to enjoy the scheme "as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle”.
About 8% of the country's workforce, or 2.4 million people, work in the hospitality, accommodation and attractions sector, which was badly hit during lockdown.
Eat Out to Help Out is due to end at the end of August, with no current plans to see it extended.