LONDON: A multi-millionaire British-Pakistani owner of the Papa John’s restaurants in the United Kingdom has denied allegations that he took more than £250,00 of taxpayers’ money in cash by claiming fake ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ meals during the British government scheme that lasted for five weeks from August-September.
A local newspaper published allegations that Raheel Choudhary, who owns 61 Papa John’s franchise restaurants across the UK, instructed staff to record thousands of fake ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ entries while the government scheme — funded by the taxpayers — was running.
Originally from Lahore, the self-made millionaire is US giant’s largest UK franchisee in the country. He has been hailed as a success story and the poster boy of the famous pizza chain for his hard work that took him from working with his dad in a laundrette to becoming a franchisee giant. Choudhary currently employs above 800 people in his business and didn’t lay off any staff member during the COVID-19 epidemic.
Papa John’s said it has launched a probe into the franchise owner over allegations ‘Eat To Help Out’ discount deal. It has been alleged that Choudhary’s most restaurants were takeaway or delivery only, hence there were no seatings available.
The paper alleged that most of Choudhary’s restaurants were not eligible for the offer – which required diners to eat in – because they were collection and delivery joints only, and that Choudhary promised his managers bonuses for putting in large numbers of fake orders.
Choudhary, franchisee Papa Johns, said in a statement to this reporter:
“Like so many industries this year, hospitality has been hit hard by coronavirus restrictions. Of my 61 franchises, 40 have seating capacity and we implemented the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme in all of those 40 stores from Monday to Wednesday throughout August. All customers who benefited from the scheme ate in stores and we are confident that we were fully compliant with the criteria set by the UK government. Total sales from the scheme accounted for 6% of our August turnover,” he said.
Choudhary added: “When the government’s scheme ended, we followed up with our discount offer in September. We are pleased that customers have been able to take advantage of these opportunities to make savings at a difficult time, and we are determined to continue offering customers the best deals possible”.
He said that the claims published in some right-wing press were not true as additional seating was added to 10 of the venues throughout August to support demand for the ‘Eat Out’ scheme.
He explained that the paper published false information as the value of the Eat Out claim vouchers was £185,015, not £250,000 equating to 32 claims per day for each of the participating stores.
He said that the paper focused on his Tunbridge Wells restaurant where the total claim for 13 days was £6825.00 (daily average value of £525.00) with additional seating placed in an adjacent unit in addition to the waiting bench in the 1500 sq feet main store.
He added: “Orders at times were taken manually due to volumes of customers and recorded later hence block entry. West Norwood’s total claim for 13 days was £2969.00, not £6900.18 as published.
“Eat Out orders accounted for 9% of total orders in August. Our normal weekly average for non-delivery orders is around 17%,” he said.
Choudhary said that Papa Johns GB was investigating the allegations and “we are cooperating fully with the investigators”.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak had offered the deal for August into the first week of September to get restaurants booming again after the coronavirus hit the industry hard.
A spokesman for Papa John’s said: “We are investigating these allegations thoroughly and we will be extremely concerned and disappointed if they prove to be true.
“All of Papa John’s UK stores are run by franchisees and we made it very clear to all franchisees that we felt it unlikely that they would be eligible to participate in Eat Out To Help Out.”
While the scheme was on, more than 100 million cut-price meals were eaten across the UK under the programme to boost the economy by encouraging consumers to dine out after months of being told to stay indoors.
Choudhary has strongly denied allegations that he misused the Chancellor’s scheme.