England’s regional COVID restrictions pose a Scotch-egg shaped conundrum: where is the dividing line between a “table meal” and a mere snack? The offending provision is Schedule Two, Reg.14(2) of The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020/1374. This prohibits the sale of alcohol on a licensed premise in a “tier-two” area unless it is served as part of a “table meal”. The question of whether you are serving “table meals” on your premises has, therefore, become an essential one for venues hoping to serve customers alcohol in areas of England placed under tier-two restrictions.
The regulations provide a two-pronged definition. First, the food. It must be a meal that “might be expected to be served as breakfast, the main midday or main evening meal, or as a main course at such a meal” (Schedule Two, Reg. 14(2)).
Second, the table. The diner must be seated at a table “or other structure that serves the purposes of a table” (Schedule Two, Reg.14(4)). This “table meal” restriction has significant implications for England’s tens of thousands of “wet-led” pubs – those that rely on serving alcohol – and raises a series of vexed issues, such as how many alcoholic drinks are proportionate to a meal, how long one can stay after having finished eating, and whether alcoholic drinks and food can be handled in separate transactions.
Guidance has been scant. Cabinet ministers have struggled to agree a party line on whether the heft of a Scotch egg places it in the category of a starter, main course or merely a bar snack.
The egg quandary is an apt illustration of the grey area in which the nation’s licensed establishments find themselves.
However, the debate over what constitutes a “table meal” is not a new topic to everyone. In fact, this and other analogous terms, such as “substantial food” or “plated meals” are the bread and butter of English licensing decisions made by local authorities. Particularly in areas with high concentrations of establishments – known as “cumulative impact areas” – serving table meals and/or being classed as a restaurant can be the difference between getting a license to sell alcohol or not.
Each local authority sets its own “statement of licensing policy”: a document that details how they will approach licensing applications in their area. I analysed a sample of 319 of these across England. Of these 319, 95 make direct reference to “table meals”, “substantial meals”, or “plated meals”, 14 to “substantial food”, and a further 13 to alcohol being “ancillary to food” or a meal. Most of these references are used to identify when an establishment is alcohol-led or can instead be considered a restaurant.
As it is local authorities that will be enforcing this “table meal” requirement for the period of coronavirus restrictions, an analysis of their prior decision-making on these analogous terms can offer an insight into what factors are taken into account.
A question of class?
Licensing hearings point to a smorgasbord of relevant factors when decisions are made, from the requirement that “non disposable crockery” is used, to the need for a “plated meal”. One exchange in a recent hearing in front of the London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s licensing committee demonstrates these issues well. As they consider whether chicken satay sticks cut the mustard to meet a “table meal” condition in an alcohol license pre-dating the tier-two restrictions, the councillor notes that, “food has various meanings”, and a table meal is a “knife and fork type of meal” not a “bag of crisps”.
However, evidence from hearings demonstrates these arguments are imbued with more than just the size, content or accompaniments of the meal being eaten. Broader, softer issues about the type of the premises and its clientele are also taken into account. This argument is put starkly by counsel for an applicant for a beachside venue seeking to serve alcohol without food in front of Thanet District Council, as below:
tying alcohol to food is no particular guarantee in of itself of how people behave … it’s not about forcing people to eat while they’re drinking … it’s a question of the class and calibre of the premises.
Are your crisps niche?
Perhaps the best example is to consider whether “crisps” could ever be considered a table meal. Crisps are much derided in licensing hearings and policies, often characterised as mere snacks. Brighton & Hove’s policy that “a bowl of crisps, nuts, or olives does not constitute substantial food”, is a sentiment echoed routinely across licensing hearings.
However, minutes from a licensing hearing at Westminster City Council in 2017 demonstrate that – when conditions are right and these broader factors of “class and calibre” are considered – mere crisps are capable of stepping into the realm of a table meal. Here, the applicant argued any consumption of alcohol on their premises was ancillary to a table meal of crisps. However, they insisted these were “high-end crisps”, served in “substantial portions accompanied with various elaborate dips”. The applicant noted that “whilst there were no tablecloths” in the premises, it is still a “high-end well-conceived approach to a niche product”, focused on “elevating a British food classic to a high-end level”.
The licensing committee was convinced, commending the applicant’s substantial work to “create a ‘non-Walkers’ crisp offer and the desire to celebrate the great British potato at its peak and most hip”. The crisps were sufficient to meet the condition of “substantial food” in order to attain an alcohol license akin to a restaurant.
So, the question of what counts as a “table meal” is about more than just a mechanistic interpretation of the food itself or plates and cutlery, or whether you need a salad with your Scotch egg. It draws on impressions of the “class and calibre” of the nature of the establishment and its clientele. When crisps are at their “peak and most hip”, accompanied with “elaborate dips”, they – along with Scotch eggs or a Cornish pasty with chips – can become a “table meal”.