Happy Eater was a family restaurant chain which rivalled Little Chef. It was known for its distinctive yellow branding, animal-shaped outdoor play areas and its slightly unwell-looking red mascot. Meals included English breakfasts and fish and chips.
Forte considered Happy Eater to be the most upmarket roadside brand they owned, with the comparatively low-rent Little Chef being the least. Childrens' badges were provided saying "I'm a Happy Eater", and in 1986 there were plans for a video game to promote the chain (this was later launched under another brand, 'Dizzy').
In 1991, the brand came to be associated with then-Prime Minister John Major, who was seen dining at one while on his way to a speech and reportedly visited regularly.
Happy Eater was set up in 1972 by Michael Pickard, who decided to leave the Trust Houses group when they merged with Forte.
Michael Pickard was later joined by former Trust Houses colleague Allen Jones, who had previously set up Welcome Break restaurants. Those restaurants were re-branded as Happy Eater, with the Welcome Break name retained for a future venture.
In 1980, Happy Eater and its 21 restaurants were taken over by the Imperial Group. Happy Eater expanded by opening sites in partnership with Esso. The number of restaurants grew to 85 before the Imperial Group were acquired by Hanson Trust in 1986, which sold its hospitality chains to Trusthouse Forte. By now Allen Jones and Jane Pickard had left and went on to form a similar chain, AJ's.
With 220 Little Chef restaurants already open, the Monopoly and Mergers Commission were called in to investigate the purchase. They concluded that a merger of the two was no threat to the public interest, as it would be easy for a new firm to enter the industry. Forte continued to grow both Little Chef and its imitation Happy Eater, but Little Chef appeared to take priority.
Trusthouse Forte were bought by Granada in 1995, who described both restaurant chains as "tired". Granada believed in the power of a strong brand and economies of scale, so they decided to convert all the Happy Eaters to Little Chef.
This meant that Little Chef were now competing with themselves, which eventually led to a mass-closure of restaurants.
Sir Rocco Forte supposedly had a gentleman's agreement with the Whitbread Group that they would buy Happy Eater if Forte ever faced a hostile takeover, implying they wanted Happy Eater to have a long legacy. However, Forte had already started closing Happy Eaters before they were purchased, as Little Chef was more lucrative. What is definitely true is that Forte were planning to quit the roadside restaurant industry, and were in advanced talks with Whitbread to sell both Happy Eater and Little Chef, which fell apart when Granada got there first.
A chain of restaurants in Mauritius now operates under the 'Happy Eater' name, with a very similar logo. They say they were founded in 1996. The rights to the Happy Eater name in the UK continue to be owned by Kout Food Group (after they took over Little Chef), despite frequent Wikipedia rumours that Happy Eater has been sold again.
Happy Eater operated at the following locations. Note that the branch numbering was not always consecutive, or consistent. Where the restaurant became part of a signposted service area, you can tap the name for more details.
|Branch Number||Restaurant||Road (at the time)||Notes|
|048||Apex Corner||A1||Closed circa 1994 (not converted).|
|039||Barham||A2||Closed circa 1996 (not converted).|
|004||Betchworth||A25||Closed circa 1996 (not converted).|
|099||Bicester||A41||One of the first to become a Little Chef.|
|102||Burford||A40||Was planned to be a Little Chef.|
|065||Burgh Heath (Pickard Motor Hotel)||A217||Not converted|
|073||Burnley||M65/A671||One of the first to become a Little Chef.|
|068||Burton North||A38||Closed circa 1994 (not converted).|
|???||Camel Cross||A303||Closed in favour of Camel Hill Little Chef, which became a Happy Eater.|
|058||Capel St Mary||A12|
|055||Chester||A41||Closed circa 1996 (not converted).|
|???||Coombe Lane (Kingston Bypass) North||A3||One of the earliest to close (not converted).|
|???||Coombe Lane (Kingston Bypass) South||A3||One of the earliest to close (not converted).|
|061||Croxton||A45||Closed circa 1994 (not converted).|
|066||Elkesley||A1||Closed circa 1994 (not converted).|
|005||Felbridge||A22||Closed circa 1996 (not converted).|
|???||Henstridge||A30||Former Welcome Break.|
|034||Hindhead (Pickard Motor Hotel)||A3|
|010||Holmwood||A24||Former Welcome Break.|
|009||Lamberhurst||A21||Former Welcome Break.|
|???||Leicester Forest East North & South||M1||Two restaurants inside the motorway services.|
|063||Membury West & East||M4||Outside the motorway services. Converted circa 1992.|
|093||Oakmere||A556||One of the first to become a Little Chef|
|067||Quarrendon||A41||Closed circa 1994 (not converted).|
|037||Rainton North||A1||One of the first to become a Little Chef|
|038||Rainton South||A1||One of the first to become a Little Chef|
|011||Rake||A3||Former Welcome Break. Closed circa 1994 (not converted).|
|100||Ross Spur||M50/A449||At the northbound motorway services.|
|108||Saltash||A38||One of the first to become a Little Chef.|
|???||Send||A3||Send Barns Lane. Possibly confused with Wisley.|
|049||Skipbridge||A59||One of the first to become a Little Chef|
|082||South Cave East||A63||One of the first to become a Little Chef|
|086||South Cave West||A63||One of the first to become a Little Chef|
|103||Sparkford||A303||Built to replace Camel Cross.|
|071||Thirsk||A168||One of the first to become a Little Chef|
|091||Todhills||A74||One of the first to become a Little Chef|
|???||Tottenham Court Road||A400||Franchised restaurant.|
|080||Weston on the Green||A34|
|092||Widnes||A562||One of the first to become a Little Chef|
|026||Worthing||A27||Junction with Cote Street.|
|021||York||A64||One of the first to become a Little Chef|