Little Chef Timeline
A closed Little Chef building.
1958 - British Caravan manufacturer Sam Alper and catering boss Peter Merchant had both been touring the USA, Alper to promote his Sprite caravan to the American Market and Merchant to seek new ideas for his business. It seems that both were inspired by the concept of the American roadside diner: its compact, transportable structure that could be moved around and its increasing popularity thanks to the growing ease of long distance motor travel.
They joined forces and used their collective skills to produce a British version, based on a diner that they saw in Leedy, Oklahoma called "Little Chef", manufactured by Valentine Industries of Wichita, Kansas. They decided that this would be the perfect name for their venture too and Alper's British-built version of the Little Chef opened on Oxford Road, Reading in 1958. The red and white painted cabin was located in the car park of the former Rex Cinema and had 11 seats.
Trusthouses/ Forte ownership
1960 - By 1960, Little Chef had become part of the Trusthouses Group.
1965 - By this time, Little Chef has 12 sites including one in Hyde Park.
1968 - Little Chef have 26 sites.
1970 - Little Chef have 44 sites.
1970s - By 1970, Trusthouses Group merges with Forte to become Trust House Forte. Two important Trusthouse people leave at this point. Allen Jones, the first Little Chef MD and Michael Pickard, the former MD of Trusthouses both decide not to be part of the new group and instead start their own Little Chef Rivals.
1970s - Jones sets up a chain that he wants to call Mr Chef but, after protests from Forte, decides to call it Welcome Break, following a competition for staff and customers to chose a name. Like Little Chef it is a waitress service style restaurant.
1972 - Michael Pickard decides to go for a more family restaurant feel and started Happy Eater as a family business. Again it is a waitress service format.
1970s - Meanwhile, keen to grow Little Chef's presence quickly and frustrated by the planning process, Forte sent teams of people out to transport cafes with good prospects and offers the owners huge cash incentives to sell and move out within the week so that they can turn their restaurants into Little Chefs. Thus by 1972 there were 100 Little Chefs compared with the 44 in 1970. Sites are a mixture of self service and waitress service, though predominantly the former.
1970s - Allen Jones (Welcome Break) and Michael Pickard (Happy Eater) decide to join forces. All Welcome Break sites are re-branded as Happy Eater and the name Welcome Break is kept on the shelf for future ventures.
1970s - Little Chef expands into France with 2 sites at Sonchamp and Thielly.
1972-1976 - The first "Little Chef Lodge" branded motel opens at Gretna service area on the A74 alongside a little Chef restaurant. One Little Chef (Mirfield A62) already has accommodation in the form of "Mirfield Motel".
1976 - Little Chef has 174 sites.
1977 - Happy Eater is doing well yet Little Chef is losing money.
1977 - Little Chef introduces the Jubilee Pancake to celebrate 25 years of Queen Elizabeth II.
1980 - Little Chef start the 1980s with 171 sites.
1980 - Happy Eater, now with 21 restaurants is taken over by Imperial Group. They already have some motorway services areas (MSAs) that they purchased from Ross Frozen Foods and re-brand the Motoross chain as Welcome Break having acquired the name through the Happy Eater purchase. They waste no time in putting Happy Eater restaurants into some of the motorway services, something Forte also does putting Little Chef into some of their THF branded large service area sites.
1982 - By now Little Chef have opened their first motorway site at the Trusthouse Forte Motorway Services at Charnock Richard on the M6. It is located on the bridge across the motorway, giving diners a prime view of the road.
1986 - Forte buys Imperial Group and gets their hands on Happy Eater and Welcome Break. They retain Happy Eater alongside Little Chef and re-brand all their own large service areas as Welcome Break, replacing the THF brand. Again Allen Jones and Jane Pickard (Michael's wife) decide they don't want to be part of Forte and leave Happy Eater to start AJ's family restaurants.
1986 - Little Chef now has 270 sites. Happy Eater has 68 with 13 more planned to open. (although 3 open as Little Chefs instead!)
1988/89 - Little Chef Lodge, now with 28 sites, is re-branded as Travelodge after Forte acquires the Travelodge brand. By this time there are 41 Travelodges alongside Little Chef restaurants. Travelodge is later re-branded as "Forte Travelodge".
1989/90 - This sees Little Chef's first (and only) airport site at Luton opened. It lasts until 1994/5.
1990 - Little Chef has 343 restaurants.
1990/91 - Forte decides to buy over Kelly's Kitchen, one of Little Chef's small rival chains. This gives them 18 additional sites, all of which are re-branded as Little Chef.
1993/4 - Little Chef decides to try and attract more customers looking for a quick stop and sets up "Coffee stops" alongside the Little Chef facilities in some of their restaurants. These are later branded as Nescafe Coffee Houses.
1993/4 - Little Chef expand into the Republic of Ireland with two Little Chef/ Travelodge sites at Cork and Dublin Swords. More follow over the next few years.
1994 - Little Chef has 350 sites.
1994 - Under a deal with Spanish oil company Repsol, who own some Spanish service areas, Little Chef and Travelodge move into Spain. The first Little Chef opens at Almuradiel, between Madrid and Seville and the second, a Little Chef/Travelodge combo opens at Zaragoza. Plans for up to 50 with a further 9 planned in 1994/5.
1994 - The Olympic Breakfast is born.
1994/5 - Forte decides that the Little Chef brand is preferred over Happy Eater and starts to convert some of the sites to Little Chef instead.
1994/5 - Forte goes for a new brand style for Little Chef and experiments with blue branding instead of the traditional red in some Little Chefs. It is unknown whether this is to mark out air conditioned restaurants or whether the plan was to eventually change the colour at all the sites. However, going by the interior décor changes - red and white tiles and red lampshades to blue and white lampshades and white/ light blue/ pink tiles - it may have been a planned brand colour change. Only a few survive today, such as Halkyn, and Forte were stopped in their tracks before any more were changed. See 1995/6.
1995 - Little Chef Express appears as a fast food option alongside the normal Little Chef facilities. The first opens at Markham Moor services northbound on the A1. Only 4 are created in total over the years, with Sparkford, Eggington and Colchester (E) joining Markham Moor. It was thought that some of the Happy Eaters may be converted to this format but only Sparkford was.
1995/6 - Hostile takeover of Forte by Granada. Having seen the success of Happy Eater and Little Chef in motorway services and larger A-road service areas, Granada already had AJ's family restaurants (by agreement with Pickard and Jones) and Rock Island Diners in some of their sites, both of which followed a similar waitress service format to Little Chef. Many Happy Eater sits still existed at this point and there was talk that Forte left them deliberately as, in the event that Forte was taken over, they had a Gentleman's agreement with Whitbread that they would buy the Happy eater chain from Forte so that Little Chef would have a rival. This never happened though. A newspaper report also claims that even if Granada had not bought them, Forte were planning to offload Little Chef, Happy Eater, Welcome Break and Travelodge to Whitbread in order to please shareholders.
1995/6 - Granada is forced to sell Welcome Break by Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Any Little Chefs in Welcome Break sites soldier on under franchise agreement but are all gone by 1997. Welcome Break replaces them with an in-house waitress service restaurant brand called "Red Hen". It never becomes a stand-alone brand and is only ever found in Welcome Break service areas. Red Hen lasts into the early 2000s.
1996 - Granada continues Forte's work of either closing Happy Eater sites or changing them to Little Chefs. The Happy Eater brand disappears by 1997.
1996 - Granada gets rid of the Little Chef coffee stops, changing most to Burger King outlets.
1996 - Granada terminates its agreement with AJ's and replaces the AJ's restaurants at its sites with Little Chef. Non-Granada AJ's sites soldier on.
1996 - Pickard and Jones sell their remaining 16 AJ's sites to the Celebrated Group. Celebrated plans to re-brand some of the sites as Starvin' Marvin's Grill and Bars in 1997 but only one site in Chichester (A27) ever gets the treatment.
1996-2001 - This sees huge expansion of the Little Chef brand under Granada. Not only is it rolled out in Granada's A-road and motorway service areas, but a new restaurant design is conceived for 1998 which premiers at Bluebell Hill (A229). The Little Chef Express brand is expanded too, featuring in Granada's new 'Fresh Express' self service restaurants in service areas and making its way into shopping centre and airport food courts.
1998 - There are over 400 Little Chefs.
1998 - Granada buys AJ's from the celebrated group and re-brands the remaining 15 restaurants as Little Chef.
1998 - Granada ends its agreement with Rock Island Diners and Little Chef replaces them in Granada sites.
1999 - The number of Little Chef/ Burger King combo sites reaches 100.
1999/2000 - There are 439 Little Chefs, 4 of which are in Ireland. This is the highest the total gets! By this point the Spanish sites have gone by the end of the 90s and the French ones closed in the mid 1970s. However, many worry that rapid growth has been pursued at the expense of refurbishment and maintenance.
2000/2001 - This period sees a reduction in numbers with numbers reducing from 439 to 406 by the end of 2001.
2001 - Compass re-brands Granada service areas as Moto.
2001/2 - There are now 400 Little Chefs, 5 of which are in Ireland.
2001/2002 - Little Chef Choices format is trialled at 2 sites. The idea is to improve the ambience of the restaurants and bring in more evening customers. For "Choices" the Little Chef brand is joined by Caffe Ritazza, Upper Crust, Wiseguys Pizza and Harry Ramsdens at the sites to give customers a greater range of food offerings. The idea is rolled out to more sites but disappears come 2003.
2002/2003 - A franchise agreement sees a Little Chef open at Swayfields motorway services in Blackburn, Lancs. This is gone by 2005.
2002/3 - Little Chef and Travelodge are sold by Compass to Permira of Canada, who form a new company called TLLC (Travel Lodge Little Chef). However, speculation is rife that Permira only wanted Travelodge really and are less interested in Little Chef, only really the sites that sit alongside Travelodges. As part of the sale, former Moto service areas Sutton Scotney, Oxford Peartree, Monmouth, Musselburgh, Colsterworth, Saltash and Warminster are now classed as Little Chef sites. Compass also retains some Little Chefs as part of a franchise agreement in several Moto service areas and retains the Little Chef sites at Todhills and Tiverton.
2003 - There are 383 Little Chefs by the end of the year.
2004/5 - Little Chef has 234 sites.
People's Restaurant Group
2005 - Little Chef is sold to People's Restaurant Group, formed by Simon Heath and Lawrence Wosskow. Prices are cut and a sense of Britishness is promoted. Great plans to revitalise the brand and to fund it by a large sale and leaseback arrangement in restaurant sites.
2005 - People's Restaurant Company reveals ambitious plans to buy Moto service areas from Compass. However, the deal falls through and Moto is sold to Irish Macquarie Bank.
2005 - The Irish Little Chefs and Travelodges are sold off separately. The 2 Dublin ones become 'Metzo' restaurants and Waterford, Cork and Limerick all become Eddie Rocket's diners.
2006 - Laurence Wosskow has health problems and speculation is that, given he is the driving force behind PRC, this could mean the demise of the company.
2006/7 - News emerges that the 235-strong roadside chain is seeking a refinancing package with a consortium of US to avert bankruptcy. Over the Christmas break, Little Chef is said to face administration the following week if last-ditch weekend crisis talks fail.
2007 - Little Chef agrees to sell 196 of its 234 restaurant to venture capital group RCapital for less than £10m the same afternoon that it goes into administration. Administrator PricewaterhouseCoopers seeks a buyer for the remaining 38 sites. Simon Heath stays on as MD.
2007 - Little Chef has 193 sites
2008 - To celebrate it's 50th birthday Little Chef decides to catapult itself back into the public eye with a "Bring it Back" marketing campaign and promises of a drastic makeover using a celebrity chef.
2008 - Little Chef announces that three-Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal is to help it revamp the brand with a new menu. This is televised as documentary "Big Chef takes on Little Chef" and leads to the successful revamp of the site at Popham.
2008 - Little Chef has 193 sites. Ian Pegler, a former boss in the Forte days, takes over from Simon Heath.
2008 - Two former Little Chefs, Shiptonthorpe and Warwick North, are re-opened. Ian Pegler hints that he would like to get the number of sites back to 200 again and is said to be looking at expansion in the north east.
2009 - For the first time, Little Chef makes it into the Good Food Guide 2010 with Popham. It also manages this for the 2011 Good Food Guide.
2009 - Two more former Little Chefs, Malton and Ings, are re-opened, only to close again in 2012.
2009 - This sees the death of the last motorway Little Chef. 2003 onwards saw Moto slowly replacing its Little Chefs with Caffe Ritazza and Marks & Spencer Simply Food, then latterly with Costa sites. The last site at Toddington Services North (M1) becomes a Costa.
2009 - Little Chef has 177 sites.
2010 - Little Chef has 162 sites.
2010 - Ian Pegler announces that he is leaving Little Chef, having done what he was employed to do and got the company back into profit again.
2011 - Little Chef decide to refurbish 9 more sites. Amesbury, Podimore and Ilminster (A303), Markham Moor North, Black Cat and Doncaster (A1), Shrewsbury (A5), Weston on the Green (A34) and Wisley South (A3). The new design is slightly different from the first three and referred to as "Wonderfully British"
2011 - Still 162 sites but 2 are now Burger King only.
2011 - Little Chef decide to change their logo. The writing becomes swirly, loopy font but remains white on a red background and Charlie, the iconic logo, loses his tray and instead opens his arms to welcome customers.
2011 - Another site, Fontwell (A27), gets the "Wonderfully British" treatment.
2011 - Detling Little Chef closes to reduce numbers to 159 Little Chefs and 2 Burger King only sites.
2011 - Little Chef tries to earn some extra income by renting out or selling some of the former now empty Burger King areas in its restaurants.
2012 - The news breaks that Little Chef is to close 67 sites (9 of which are Travelodge shared sites) that are not making a profit in order to concentrate on the 94 that are with the estimated loss of 500 jobs. The reasoning is that by getting rid of this financial drain, they will be able to refurbish the profit making sites in line with the 13 "Hestonised" and "Wonderfully British" ones, with the additional income they get from increased custom, hopefully open more sites. 18 sites close immediately (Adlington, Barton U Needwood, Bebington, Burton South, Cross Hands, Dumbarton, Dundee, Hagley, Hartlebury, Hellingly, Hope-U-Dinmore, Kilmarnock, Middlewich, Mirfield, Newby, Newtown, Rising Bridge & Worksop) with the other 49 under review but likely to close by the end of the month.
Jan/Feb 2012 - Announcement that some of the sites due to be closed have been given a stay of execution until June 2012. However, Appleby A66, Ashchurch A438, Barnetby M180/ A15, Bickerstaffe M58 J3, Brenzett A259, Broadlands A47, Buckland A420, Kennford North A38, Little Eaton A38/ A61, Milton Keynes A5, Saxmundham A12, Smithaleigh A38, Spean Bridge A82, Thirsk A168, Trewern A458, Warwick North A46 (only re-opened in 2009), Whitchurch A41, Wisbech A47, Ings A591 (only re-opened in 2009), Malton A64 (re-opened in 2009), Capel St Mary North A12 and Kinmel Park East A55 all close.
Feb 2012 - Little Chef now have 119 restaurants plus 2 Burger King only sites.
Feb 2012 - Five more branches have closed. Barton Mills North A11(The last former AJ's site under Little Chef ownership, Farrington Gurney A37, Markham Moor South A1 (the most distinctive roadside cafe on the A1), Picket Post A31, West Lynn A17/ A47. This takes the count down to 114 restaurants plus 2 Burger King only sites.
April 2012 - Chesterfield (A61), Whitemare Pool (A194) and Saltash (A38) all become Burger King only sites. This takes the count down to 111 restaurants plus 5 Burger King only sites.
June 2012 - Winterbourne Abbas A35 gets a refit. This has the new branding but is not as "full on" as the "Wonderfully British" package with no "Good to Go" takeaway outlet. This fuels speculation about the success of this offering.
July 2012 - Coffee Tempo, now with only 11 branches, is discontinued. To fill the gap, Little Chef announce the return of "Little Chef Express" and re-brand all 11 outlets.
July 2012 - Eight more branches close at the end of the month. Capel St Mary South A12, Emsworth A27, Five Oaks A29, Hockliffe A5, Liphook A3, Rivenhall South A12, Shiptonthorpe A614/A1069, Wrexham A483. This takes the total down to 103 Little Chef restaurants plus 5 Burger King only sites which means 108 Little Chef operated sites overall. It also means that Shiptonthorpe, the last of the sites re-opened by Ian Pegler still surviving, has now closed again.
August 2012 - This month another 5 have been chopped. Droitwich (A38), Dunchurch (A45), Gate (A2), Long Sutton (A17) and Ludlow (A49). This takes the total to below the 100 for the first time since the 70s to 98 Little Chefs. However, 5 Burger King-only sites operated by little Chefs do too meaning 103 sites in total operated by Little Chef.
September 2012 - Chief executive Graham Sims announces that Little Chef are to offer franchises again in a bid to open more restaurants. He says he is about to sign up the first franchise operator, probably in East Anglia, for an outlet which should be open in the autumn.
September 2012 - Another three closures this month, This time at Beacon (A63), Morcott (A47) and Collin (A75). At present though 95 Little Chefs soldier on with 5 additional Burger King only sites taking the total to 100 Little Chef operated roadside restaurants.
September 2012 - 15 more sites close at the end of September. Balhaldie North (A9), Barnsdale Bar North (A1), Barnsdale Bar South (A1), Chicklade (A303), Kinmel Park East (A55), Lamberhurst (A21), Monmouth North (A40), Monmouth South (A40), Old Stratford (A5/ A508), Saughall (A540), Stonehouse (A419), Stowmarket (A14), Thrussington (A46), Weston on the Green South (A34), Whitstable East (A299). This takes the total to 80 Little Chef restaurants still trading plus 5 additional Burger King sites only. Also, three new Little Chef Express sites are planned at Popham, York and West Knoyle.
October 2012 - The three new Little Chef Express sites at Popham, York & West Knoyle open.
December 2012 - Little Chef close two more sites at Allesley (A46/ A435) and Harlow East (A414). This takes the total to 78 Little Chef restaurants still trading plus 5 additional Burger King sites only.
April 2013 - R Capital put Little Chef up for sale. Costa, Starbucks, Moto and Welcome Break are all thought to be interested.
Kout Food Group
August 2013 - Kout Food Group buy 81 of R Capital's 83 sites, with the other two, at Sutton Scotney, being kept by them but still branded as Little Chef. This allows 78 Little Chefs and 5 Little Chef owned BK sites to keep trading.
October/November 2013 - Kout Food Group decide to resurrect the Little Chef/ Burger King combination at fifteen sites (all of which previously had BKs alongside their Little Chef). These sites include Alfreton, Alwalton, Barton Mills, Cirencester, Crewe, Fourwentways, Haydock, Lincoln, Marston Moretaine, Penrith, Sourton Cross, Sutterton and Thame.
December 2013 - Kout decide to celebrate Little Chef's 55th birthday with a street party theme. Restaurants open their doors to community groups to allow them to promote their works or undertake street-party style events to raise money for charity. This ran during the weekend of the 7th and 8th of December.
December 2013 - Dreghorn Little Chef closes its doors. This takes the total to 77 Little Chef restaurants still trading plus 5 additional Burger King sites only.
March 2014 - A new man at the top, John Moore, takes over from former MD Frank Romano
March 2014 - R Capital sold their last remaining two sites at Sutton Scotney to Roadchef who plan to turn the two sites into their standard Costa/McDonalds/WH Smith combination and also plan to reintroduce a games arcade to both sites. 75 Little Chefs plus 5 BK only sites remain.
March 2014 - Royston Little Chef closes leaving 74 Little Chefs plus 5 BK only sites trading.
May 2014 - Lolworth Little Chef closes for a month, becoming the first Little Chef to receive a makeover under Kout ownership. In the process its closed Burger King unit is also revived. Kettering West also receives a "refresh"
October 2014 - Whiddon Down Little Chef closes leaving 73 Little Chefs plus 5 BK only sites trading.
September 2016 - Chippenham Little Chef closes however the Burger King remains open, leaving 70 Little Chefs and 8 BK only sites trading.
1 February 2017 - Little Chef is sold by Kout Food Group to Euro Garages, with other bidders including McDonald's, KFC and Costa. The first branch to close is Winterbourne Abbas, as the lease expired on 10 February and was not renewed.
10 to 16 March 2017 - Balhaldie South, Axminster, Dolgellau and Honiton Little Chefs close their doors. They are set to become Starbucks reopening in May 2017. This leaves 65 Little Chefs and 8 BK only sites trading.