The incident at the Hot Flame all-you-can-eat world cuisine buffet at the Livingston Designer Outlet in West Lothian, comes as thousands of businesses in the hospitality sector in Scotland and across the rest of the UK are struggling to recoup costs incurred by Covid such as lockdowns, providing PPE and social distancing features.
Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling, said it was the first time he had heard of such an occurrence UK-wide in the hospitality sector during Covid.
Sid Gavan, restaurant manager, estimated that the incident on had cost him almost £1,000 in lost takings.
Following the alarm being triggered at nearby Pizza Hut during the busy Friday lunchtime rush, customers were asked to stand outside the complex until the ‘all clear’ was given.
Gavan, who has worked at the restaurant for almost seven years, said: “While I was waiting to go back inside I recognised a customer getting into a BMW and just driving away like nothing had happened. They didn’t pay a penny.
“Then when we all returned inside I noticed immediately that while 39 of our tables had been full before the alarm, only 19 tables had people sitting at them. That’s like less than 50 per cent.
“I’m really angry to be very frank. I would never behave like that. We have regular customers and ones who come in every now and then. I couldn’t have predicted the ones who didn’t pay. It was a mixture of families, young people, grandparents, posh-looking people, all sorts.
“I made a point of speaking to those who did return and thanked them personally.”
Customer Carol Johnstone, from Fife, who had taken her daughter, aged 14 and ten-year-old twin son and daughter, out for lunch to Hot Flame, said: “We had a table booked for 1pm and around 2pm when we were waiting for the pudding the fire alarm went off.
“We all grabbed our valuables and poured outside. But when we got the call to come back inside I said ‘right, we’ll go back and sort out the bill.’
“We sat down and had a good look around and saw all these tables still with drinks poured out but hardly anyone returning.
“The poor manager looked absolutely gutted.
“I’d noticed a man with a teenage son who had come in after us and they certainly hadn’t come back. It was a mix of people who left without paying.
“My teenage daughter said ‘I’d come back”. I was so proud of her. But what an example to set your kids. Good values and honesty cost nothing.
“Hospitality has been through so much. They’ve kept staff on, had to splash out on things like PPE, gloves and masks. Why should they go through all this protocol to be treated like that? I’m appalled and feel heart sorry about what went on.
“These businesses are trying to get back to some sort of normality. Covid is an excuse for a lot of things, but this was about people to get something for nothing.”
Prof Sparks said that while some customers were behaving in an unacceptable manner during Covid the incident at Hot Flame was unique.
“The only thing similar is that there’s been a lot on social media about ‘no-shows’ and people booking multiple sites but intending to go to only one place, meaning the restaurants lose tables. This is hitting restaurants particularly hard.
“But this Livingston is more extreme as the customers were actually there. It’s not good for anyone at a time when every table counts.”
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