Last Little Chef closes - remember their highs and lows

Last Little Chef closes - remember their highs and lows

1980s restaurant.

It's official. After 60 years and over 500 closures, the final 30 Little Chef restaurants will be closing their doors and become the much-less fashionable EG Diner.

Since about 2000, Little Chef has been a cash-cow being fattened up for the market. This had two forms: some managers wanted to heartlessly strip out the majority of it, others wanted to carelessly throw money at it.

As a result, branches were stripped out, others were refurbished, and given bright new colours.

It's ironic how for much of the last 20 years Little Chef has been in the headlines over fears it would go bust, but this week when it happens for real there is silence. That's because this closure is through choice - the owners want more money from it.

Shortly before the remaining assets were sold, I was asked to write about Little Chef. Not knowing about the dark negotiations going on in the background, I wrote this cheery and optimistic article about how the brand could live forever. And it could have done - in the right hands.


Little Chef's Big Chance

In 2000 there were 439 branches of Little Chef across the UK and Ireland. Barely 15 years later, there are just 70.

That is a trend which can be found throughout the catering business. Eating by the side of the road might not sound like everybody's cup of tea, but there is a whole industry which depends on more people pulling in for lunch - and they might have worked out how to do it.

The relationship between driving and eating can be traced back to the UK's economic boom of the 1950s. People had more money to spend, they had more time to spare, and they were taking inspiration from American culture and heading out on a roadtrip.

Restaurants sprouted up by the side of main roads nationwide and managed to convince this new form of tourism that their cheap, no-nonsense menus would be better than bringing a picnic.

Some of those would go on to be owned by large chains, offering a standardised menu and a predictable service which welcomed families. By taking over competitors such as Happy Eater, Kelly's Kitchen and AJ's, Little Chef became the biggest, and its Olympic Breakfast would become the staple diet of road users across the country.

Thinking about his family holidays in the 1980s, Little Chef enthusiast Alan Simpson explained, "people loved it and came to associate their visits with holidays, days out and a chance to spend time with family eating the sort of food that for many was a treat".

While some family-run restaurants used an imaginative and eye-catching design to attract attention and turn them in to landmarks, Little Chef assumed their name made enough of a landmark and they used a standard format which allowed them to be quickly constructed whatever the location.

An abandoned building.

Going Stale

With 400 restaurants open across Europe, things started to turn sour.

Being passed between several owners left Little Chef little opportunity to invest in its large estate. They thought their only competition was a few similar family restaurants, but supermarkets, leisure parks and family-friendly chain pubs were opening up everywhere and these used their wide appeal to offer cheaper prices, longer opening hours and a better service.

Suddenly, motorists started to drive on by. The image of an old-fashioned 'greasy-spoon' became ingrained in the public's mind and they decided they would rather find a town offering a name they knew than eat by the road.

For Little Chef and its peers, empty car parks and poor reviews were not encouraging signs for investors or customers. Once the branches started to close, many more followed. Where a journey might once have taken you past hundreds of eateries you could choose from, they were now all boarded up in the middle of fields; a sad shadow of the landmark they once served as.

They weren't all left empty though. In the years that followed, big names such as Starbucks, McDonald's and Subway - all of whom were unknown back when hungry drivers first became a target market - have started to move into some of the unused buildings. The menu of breakfasts and pancakes has been taken out and in its place is hamburgers and takeaway Frappuccinos.

In the case of one old restaurant in Yorkshire, its isolated and discrete, rural location has found an unlikely new use selling sex toys.

Modern Little Chef.

U-Turn

It wasn't the end of the road though. Almost a quarter of the iconic Little Chefs and many independent names have dodged their fate and continue to soldier on. A few had been closed and then opened again. Whether it's thanks to a lucrative location, supportive landlords or sheer luck, these remaining restaurants continue to serve as a familiar watering hole for a fry up or pancakes.

Their prospects aren't showing such bleak signs either. A healthier menu and high-profile refurbishment scheme has raised Little Chef's profile, and in the last few years the rate of closures has dwindled dramatically.

The outlook has improved, and Alan Simpson can't see that changing: "in a world where people still take long journeys by car and will inevitably get hungry and need to rest there will be a market for a roadside offering".

So how can his favourite chain fight off the newer, big-name brands and ensure it remains king of the road? "If Little Chef's owners can offer genuine value with well presented restaurants that evoke that excitement and happy nostalgia amongst travellers then I'm sure the brand has a future".

Related: Little Chef photo gallery (YouTube)


Tedious about the author bit

I love music, media, news, travelling, old TV shows, heavy machinery, lists. Have a fear of boats. Humour is weak at best.

I present/produce radio, I write, I'll be whoever you want to be. I'm not wearing that.


Legally bland

Any similarities with real-life events or wealthy international firms is probably coincidental. No products endorsed. I'm powered by Monster Munch.


© 2018 Johnathan Randall.