History of Welcome Break
An older Welcome Break service area, in 2005.
Welcome Break is the oldest surviving motorway name, but it has gone through a lot of changes, as this page explains.
See also: Welcome Break Logo History
Welcome Break were originally created in the 1970s by Allen Jones, an ex-Little Chef managing director who left the company when it's owner, Trust Houses, merged with Forte. The name was chosen by staff after his own choice, 'Mr. Chef', was rejected for being too similar to its rival.
Welcome Break sites followed a similar format to Little Chef, being small restaurants with waitress service. In the late 1970s, in a bid to rival Little Chef more seriously, Jones joined forces with rival and former Trust Houses MD Michael Pickard who had left Trust Houses to set up Happy Eater in 1972. By 1979 Welcome Break's 10 or so sites had all either closed or become Happy Eater sites. The Welcome Break name was retained by the company for future business ventures.
In April 1984, Hanson Trust, who had now acquired Happy Eater, acquired four "highly respected" services from Ross, which they applied to Welcome Break name to. The Welcome Break head office was at Leicester Forest East and the company had inherited a good reputation.
In this short period, the services used discreet colours and subdued lighting. The main restaurant was named Welcome Break, with a takeaway unit called Burger Break and, in some services, an ice cream kiosk. Electronic games were provided for children.
They were soon bought by Trusthouse Forte in 1986 who decided to use the combined name 'THF Welcome Break' at their new Sutton Scotney services. In fact, they soon decided to use Welcome Break's name at their nine motorway services - using the popular brand's name to stop the notorious service station industry from damaging Forte's high reputation. The new brand was kicked off in 1988 with a TV advertising campaign.
Forte also bought Happy Eater at the same time, and introduced three Happy Eaters to Welcome Break services. Welcome Break services began to gain motels branded Forte Travelodge.
In 1995 Forte announced that they were going to add a McDonald's to every one of their services, but the process was stopped after just two because Forte were acquired by Granada, a deal which included Welcome Break. Granada described Welcome Break's original concept as "still looking good", but that they "have not been kept up to date", adding that Forte had "starved them of cash".
Granada then said that they wanted to add Burger King and Little Chef to all the services and make use of the Travelodge chain which they had also acquired as part of the deal, and that in doing this they wanted to make a much-doubted £500m from it.
Just months after buying them, Granada upped the prices at all of their services given that they now owned over 75% of the motorway market: for example the M4 is 189 miles long and yet the only services which weren't owned by Granada were at the very end. It's not surprising that they did make their £500m.
By now, Granada had grown so much they were investigated by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, who put a cap on the prices at their services and insisted that they sold Welcome Break. After a £400m plan from ASDA to create motorway hypermarkets fell through, it was bought by Investcorp for £476million, but the whole event took almost 2 years - a time which angered many people, especially Roadchef. Welcome Break didn't get all their services back: many smaller a-road services like Sutton Scotney on the A34 were kept by Granada, but they shrunk it down and sold it off a few years later.
During the shake-up, Granada had fixed franchises for Little Chef and Travelodge for all their services, so after the split Welcome Break had to replace them with their own-branded Red Hen and Welcome Lodge respectively.
At the time, their facilities included The Granary, La Baguette, and an area branded 'shopping' which promoted a food hall, news stand, sweet shop and galleria. They were trialling a shop called The Junction.
Investcorp and beyond
For a while former Red Hen units were left unused, before becoming coffee lounges for Coffee Primo and now Starbucks. Welcome Break went on to change their shops to WHSmith, game arcades from Game Zone to Welcome Break Gaming, and restaurants from Food Connection to Eat In. After an unsuccessful trial with Sainsbury's, Waitrose was introduced.
After making a profit for the first time in a while, Investcorp put Welcome Break up for sale in 2008 with a price of around £500million. They were bought by Appia Investments, although the exact price is not known.
Welcome Break did very well in the Loo of the Year Awards, which until then had been dominated by Moto. In 2008, out of 36 graded services, 30 of them won five stars and the remaining six all four stars. Overall, out of all the country's public toilets graded, Welcome Break's facilities came eighth, beaten by the likes of McDonald's and ASDA. They were awarded a 'Standards of Excellence' (Champions League) award.
The Times listed Welcome Break as being the 81st biggest private company in 2008 (dropping 22 places since the year before), with annual sales of £631m and profits of £37m.
They were the first operator to roll-out electric vehicle charging points, and truck wash facilities.
Originally their services were painted blue, and then following refurbishments, grey. Their new brands went hand-in-hand with the several stages of refurbishment which has been carried out at all of their services, trying to freshen up some of the older ones and introduce more modern facilities. As part of this, they briefly painted many of their services orange (to match Coffee Primo) and red (for KFC), but instead settled on black to go with their new colour scheme which was introduced in 2006. In 2007 they wanted to display 'supergraphic' advertisements stretched across the internal walkways at all of their services. They were all refused on road safety grounds.
The new black colour scheme was joined by large pictures ('murals') relevant to the area surrounding each site. These were later pahsed out and replaced by an all-black, and then a cream colour scheme.
Welcome Break have talked about branching into another sector all together, with the opening of services at Cardiff Gate and after that Peartree, both of which aim for local traffic as much as long-distance traffic. This turned out to be followed by the introduction of more take-away units, shops and drive thrus aimed at commuter traffic.
They took over the catering at the Eurotunnel UK Terminal, and later agreed to take on the freight terminal as well, but this agreement later ended, despite rumours it could be the start of more non-motorway units.
Welcome Break also operate motels outside of motorway services, such as at M1 J40.