|Locations:||48 roadside restaurants (plus 9 trading only as Burger King, 5 sites with Little Chef Express and 7 sites with Subway)|
|Associated names:||Coffee Tempo!, Travelodge, Burger King, Subway|
|Predecessors:||Happy Eater, AJ's, Kelly's Kitchen, Little Chef Lodge, Little Chef Express|
|Successors:||Red Hen, Burger King, Costa, McDonald's, Metzo Restaurant, Starbucks, Subway, Travelodge Bar Café|
|Opening hours:||Varies, most sites 7am-3pm|
Little Chef was once the biggest of all Britain's roadside names, catering for families on the move and making a good attempt to attract local residents too.
Facing increasing competition, the Little Chef brand was losing its way by the 1990s. A series of passionless owners interested only in extracting as much money as possible led the brand in hundreds of directions, bouncing between mass openings, mass closures and mass refurbishments.
While this was going on, the brand was usually reported to be close to going bankrupt, and when it wasn't in the headlines the rumours were the disinterested owners were preparing to close it down.
In February 2017, their newest owner, Euro Garages, began a programme to close down all Little Chefs, replacing them with other brands available to them such as Starbucks. This is scheduled to be complete before the end of the year.
Most Little Chef restaurants have a small shop within them selling necessities. Larger shops are signed from the road, on the totem pole. All sites also offer Lavazza or Miko coffee and Little Chef also offers customers a take away option.
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. This will stick around a lot longer than their restaurants.
Full details: 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, R Capital, Kout Food Group and it is now owned by Euro Garages. At the height of its popularity it boasted 439 branches, including 5 in the Republic of Ireland. Today this has been reduced to 48 restaurants.
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 Travelodge's. 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.
In 1986, motorway Little Chefs were described by Which? as "rather old-fashioned". Despite this, it continued to grow in numbers.
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 two in France, both of which closed by 1976.
In 1992/3 two sites were opened in the Republic of Ireland with three more following between 1996/7 and 2001/2, all next to Travelodges by major roundabouts. In 2005 Little Chef and Travelodge in Ireland were sold to Egan Hospitality and the Little Chefs rebranded. The two Dublin ones became 'Metzo' restaurants (now 'Travelodge Bar') and the three others became Eddie Rocket's Diners. Little Chef's next foray was into Spain with three branches opened by 1994/5 and 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 where customers can build their own sandwich and are referred to as "Wonderfully British".
The strained relationship with Heston Blumenthal catapulted Little Chef back in to the public eye, but the good reviews didn't last too long.
In January 2012, Little Chef spent the day as a global trending topic on Twitter, as people reacted to news that over half of the company's restaurants would be closing, resulting in 600 job losses.
R Capital and then Kout Food Group remained committed to saving the brand by closing unprofitable restaurants, improving the image of what it had, and then opening new sites where they would work. In reality, the closures were far more noticeable than anything else.
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.
In November 2016, rumours circled that Euro Garages were interested in purchasing the chain. In the eyes of Kout Food Group, this would be a success: Euro Garages would keep most of the restaurants, saving the jobs of the people who work there.
Staff and customers with an attachment to the brand saw things differently. Euro Garages didn't want to maintain the Little Chef name and wanted to use names such as Starbucks instead.
Little Chef stopped responding to customer feedback, and the takeover was made official in February 2017. The first restaurant closed ten days later, although staff at most others were told they could continue working under a different franchise. Closures took place throughout 2017.
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 current and former 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) - now closed
- Shrewsbury (A5)
- Weston on the Green North (A34)
- Wisley South (A3)
- Winterbourne Abbas (A35) - now closed
- York (A64)
Kout planned to refurbish all the existing Little Chef's to the new format between 2011 and 2017.
Little Chef no longer operate at any motorway services, but one of their restaurants (Crewe) is at a service area next to the motorway.
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