|Locations:||72 roadside restaurants (plus 6 trading only as Burger King)|
|Associated names:||Coffee Tempo!, Travelodge|
|Predecessors:||Happy Eater, AJ's, Kelly's Kitchen, Little Chef Lodge, Little Chef Express|
|Successors:||Red Hen, Costa, Burger King, Metzo Restaurant, Starbucks|
|Opening hours:||Varies, most stores 7am-10pm|
Little Chef was once the biggest of all Britain's roadside names, catering for drivers on the move and coming close to getting local customers too. Things had taken a downward spiral over recent years with the company changing hands 6 times between 1995 and the present day with many restaurants being closed down. Today, under the ownership of Venture Capital Firm R Capital they're set on turning round their image with a new look for just about everything they do.
This has started with plans to almost halve their estate, losing up to 600 jobs in the process. When this was announced in January 2012, Little Chef spent the day as a global trending topic on Twitter, as people discussed the chain.
Little Chef Today
After several weak attempts to kick-start the brand, Little Chef have finally embarked on a large scheme bringing a new look and new menu to several restaurants across the country. Among the new ideas is a 'Good To Go' deli counter where customers can build their own sandwich. The new look is referred to as "Wonderfully British".
Little Chef have had a huge cultural impact, often owing to their negative public perception from the past. There is a long-standing joke that Little Chef's chain of restaurants pre-dates the British road network. Some people find that funny.
In October 2011, it was announced that Little Chef was going to be the first company in the UK to introduce a nationwide network of electric vehicle charging points.
This is explored in great detail at Little Chef Timeline
Little Chef was started in 1958 by Peter Merchant (Gardner Merchant) and Sam Alper, the man responsible for Sprite Touring caravans. It has since been taken on a rollercoaster journey that has seen it owned by Gardner Merchant, Trusthouses, Trusthouse Forte, Granada, Compass Catering, Permira of Canada, The People's Restaurant Company and is now owned by Venture Capital Firm R Capital. At the height of its popularity it boasted 439 branches, including 5 in the Republic of Ireland. Today this has been reduced to 80 restaurants with an additional 5 sites operating as Burger King only.
The name came from a diner caravan in the USA which Peter Merchant saw on holiday and inspired him to bring the idea to the UK. The first one was created in Reading and had 11 seats.
During the '70s Forte branded their Little Chefs with motels as Little Chef Lodge, which then became "Forte Travelodges". Little Chef also featured in many of Forte's Welcome Break service areas.
Little Chef had a rival, Happy Eater, which was bought by Forte in 1986 from Imperial Tobacco, and the old directors went on to form AJ's. In 1998/90, Forte did a similar thing, purchasing all 18 restaurants from growing rival Kelly's Kitchen, again converting them to Little Chefs.
Granada and Compass
In the 1990s Granada owned Little Chef, Happy Eater and Travelodge, as well as Trusthouse Forte and its chain of motorway services, Welcome Break. Granada decided to convert all the remaining Happy Eaters (and their own 'Burger Express') to Little Chefs as they earned more money, as well as building Little Chefs at most of their motorway services. They also continued to build small services consisting of only a Little Chef and a Travelodge across the a-road network. In 1998, Granada acquired the entire AJ's brand and converted them to Little Chefs for the same reason.
Under Compass ownership, Moto, Trusthouse Forte, Welcome Break and Little Chef and Travelodge all went separate ways, and Moto got to keep their Little Chef outlets as they were franchised, but Welcome Break's weren't. As a result of this, Welcome Break had to remove all their Little Chefs and they chose to re-brand them as Red Hen.
Little Chef Express
When Forte owned Little Chef, they devised a takeaway restaurant called 'Little Chef Express', with the first one opening up at Markham Moor North (opposite the most distinctive Little Chef, on the A1 at Markham Moor South) as an add on to the main Little Chef. It was intended as a rival to the growing number of fast food chains that were springing up on the roadside and Forte's plan was to rebrand many Happy Eater restaurants as Little Chef Express self-service restaurants in 1995. However only 5 Little Chef Expresses ever made it to the roadside as the move was interrupted by Granada, who preferred Burger King.
Little Chef Express was developed as a "food court" brand in later years though by Compass, who owned Little Chef in the early part of the '00s and it featured in some shopping centres, airports and even the Eurotunnel terminal as well as having a stall in many of Granada's Fresh Express self service restaurants. The brand ceased to exist in the early 2000s but, as of 24th July 2012, is set to re-launch as Little Chef's new "grab and go" brand, replacing Coffee Tempo.
Although Little Chef's main market is the UK they have appeared in other countries. In the 1970s there were 2 in France, both of which closed by 1976. In the 1992/3 two sites were opened in the Republic on Ireland with 3 more following between 1996/7 and 2001/2. In 2005 Little Chef and Travelodge in Ireland were sold off to new operators and the Little Chefs rebranded. The two Dublin ones became "Metzo" restaurants and the 3 others became Eddie Rockets Diners. Little Chefs next foray was into Spain with 3 branches opened by 1994/5 with more planned. It is believed that these have now disappeared too although it is unclear when.
Rather ironically, after Granada claimed that they earned more money and later left them, Little Chef are facing their own financial problems. There are no more Little Chefs at 'proper' motorway services, the last one to close was the one at Toddington. All of this has had a dramatic effect on numbers with Little Chef now down to 162 restaurants as of April 2011, meaning that there are more than 200 ex-restaurants around the country, many of which are still abandoned.
In 2008, then Chief Executive Ian Peglar revealed the company was back in profit and he had aspirations to increase the number of sites back to 200 over the next few years. However, he departed from the company in 2010 and, although 4 former sites re-opened in this time, no new sites have yet been developed.
Little Chef used to be joined by Cafe Nescafe, later Burger King. Larger Little Chef sites now tend to be joined by Coffee Tempo!, a small 'grab and go' coffee shop. It was introduced in 2005. However, Coffee Tempo! failed to catch on with most of its outlets gone by 2008. In 2012 the remaining 11 were rebranded as Little Chef Express.
The latest refurbishment effort was brought on after a successful trial of a new format devised by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. This was documented in a four-part TV documentary 'Big Chef Takes On Little Chef', which saw the restaurant at Popham thoroughly refurbished and become immensely popular.
The entire menu then saw some more generic changes before more restaurants were converted. The latest batch are slightly different from the Hestonised Little Chefs, include a new Good to Go deli counter and are referred to as "Wonderfully British".
Little Chef's famous chef logo is called Charlie or "Fat Charlie" by some people - attempts to replace him with a thinner design are always followed by controversy. In 2009, this eventually happened: his neckerchief was replaced by a proper chef's jacket.
Locations and Former Sites
Full details: Little Chef locations
The following restaurants took up the new format whilst R Capital were in charge:
- Amesbury (A303)
- Doncaster (A1)
- Black Cat (A1)
- Fontwell (A27)
- Ilminster (A303)
- Kettering westbound(A14)
- Markham Moor North (A1)
- Podimore (A303)
- Popham (A303)
- Shrewsbury (A5)
- Weston on the Green North (A34)
- Wisley South (A3)
- Winterbourne Abbas (A35)
- York (A64)
Kout plan to refurbish all the existing Little Chef's over the next few years to the new format.
Little Chef no longer operate at any motorway services, but one of their restaurants (Crewe) is at a service area next to the motorway.
Views expressed in these comments are those of the individual contributor. They are moderated by Facebook.