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Happy Eater

Happy Eater
Locations:up to 85
Associated names:Welcome Break, AJ's, Esso
Introduced:1973
Removed:1996
Predecessors:Welcome Break
Successors:Little Chef
Happy Eater signpost.
The Happy Eater signpost.

Happy Eater was a family restaurant chain which became a common sight in the 1980s, especially in the southern England. It was known for its distinctive yellow branding, animal-shaped outdoor play areas and its slightly unwell-looking red mascot.

Forte considered Happy Eater to be the most upmarket roadside brand they owned, with the comparatively low-rent Little Chef being the least. The Happy Eaters were more spacious, had better play areas and separate kitchens. Childrens' caps and badges were provided saying "I'm a Happy Eater", as well as Lego and games.

Happy Eaters were especially busy on Sundays, as families would head out of town for the day. On weekdays the trade came mostly from businessmen. Meals included English breakfasts and fish and chips, and the children's 'Dougal's Delight'.

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.

Much has been said about Happy Eater's unfortunate logo. It was actually redrawn in 1993 to remove the hand (example), but by then most branches had already closed.

Company History

Happy Eater restaurant.
The Winning Post Happy Eater.

Happy Eater was set up in 1972 by Michael Pickard, who decided to leave the Trust Houses group when they merged with Forte. The first branch opened in Ripley in May 1973, and the company was owned by Courage Brewery, itself owned by the Imperial Group.

Michael Pickard was later joined by former Trust Houses colleague Allen Jones, who had previously set up Welcome Break restaurants. Most of those restaurants had been re-branded as Happy Eater by 1978, with the Welcome Break name retained for a future venture.

"We're not only creating an industry but a profession."
Sandy Ross, Commercial Director, 1985

By 1980, Happy Eater had 21 restaurants. These mostly used existing pubs and cafés, usually next to a petrol station. They had been looking for "a straight road approach, easy access and good parking facilities".

At this point they began to scale up their operation, with a standard building design that could be constructed quickly, and a partnership with Esso that helped them plan new sites, and new bright yellow colours were introduced. Most sites were leased from a garage or petrol station; a few were owned and one was franchised.

The number of restaurants had grown to 85 before Imperial Group were acquired by Hanson Trust in 1986, which sold its hospitality chains to Trusthouse Forte that August. Forte immediately curtailed a few projects they found unprofitable, including a planned Happy Eater video game - that was later launched under another brand, 'Dizzy'. In general Forte approved of Happy Eater, noting its careful site selection and long opening hours. They wanted to expand it to 200 branches.

A report found that the average spend on a meal in 1986 was £3, with hamburgers priced at £2.75. During the two takeovers, Allen Jones and Jane Pickard left Imperial Group 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.

Closure

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.

Specifically, the Happy Eater name is owned by Kout's subsidiary Hybrid Dining Ltd, who's only assets are the Little Chef and Happy Eater brands. In October 2019 they stated that they are "focusing efforts" on monetising these. Note that this does not necessarily mean that they are seeking to open new restaurants, but that they may not turn down an opportunity if one arose.

Locations

Full details: Map of Happy Eater restaurants

Happy Eater operated at the following locations.

Note that the branch numbering was not always consecutive, or consistent. In the Forte era, some planned Little Chefs and Happy Eaters were swapped around as construction started, causing confusion in the historical records: we believe our list is an accurate record of what actually opened as a Happy Eater.

Where further information is available on the service area, you can tap its name for details.

Branch Number Restaurant Road (at the time) Notes
078 Andover North A303
079 Andover South A303
048 Apex Corner A1 Closed circa 1994 (not converted).
098 Attleborough A11
062 Baldock A1
039 Barham A2 Closed circa 1996 (not converted).
031 Basildon A127
070 Belbroughton A491
077 Bere Regis A31
004 Betchworth A25 Closed circa 1996 (not converted).
099 Bicester A41 One of the first to become a Little Chef.
065 Birstall A62
102 Burford A40 Was planned to be a Little Chef.
065 Burgh Heath (Pickard Motor Hotel) A217 Not converted.
073 Burnley A671 (M65) One of the first to become a Little Chef.
046 Burton South A38
??? Camel Cross A303 Closed in favour of Camel Hill Little Chef, which became a Happy Eater.
069 Cannock A5 Was Jubilee Café.
058 Capel St Mary A12
002 Charing A20
055 Chester A41 Closed circa 1996 (not converted).
017 Chipping Norton A44
030 Codford A36
040 Colsterworth North A1
101 Colsterworth South A1
076 Colwyn Bay A55
??? Coombe Lane (Kingston Bypass) North A3 Opened 1975, closed very early (not converted).
??? Coombe Lane (Kingston Bypass) South A3 Opened 1975, closed 1979 (not converted).
061 Croxton A45 Closed circa 1994 (not converted).
059 Darley Dale A6
081 Daventry A45
025 Detling A249
097 Doncaster A1
045 East Dereham A47
066 Elkesley A1 Closed circa 1994 (not converted).
087 Feering A12
005 Felbridge A22 Closed circa 1996 (not converted).
??? Freckenham A11
096 Hailsham A22
003 Handcross A23 Known for being the "third oldest" branch.
??? Henstridge A30 Former Welcome Break.
034 Hindhead (Pickard Motor Hotel) A3 Previously the Royal Huts Hotel.
006 Hogs Back A31
064 Holbeach A17 Was Ron's Café.
010 Holmwood A24 Former Welcome Break, converted in 1978.
012 Hooley A23
027 Horsham A24
083 Ilminster A303
015 Kennford North A38
016 Kennford South A38
009 Lamberhurst A21 Former Welcome Break.
??? Leicester Forest East North & South M1 Two restaurants within the motorway service area. At least one was in the transport café.
075 Manchester A34
024 Markham Moor A1
089 Martlesham A12
063 Membury West & East M4 Outside the motorway services. Converted circa 1992.
104 Newark A1/A17/A46
041 Newmarket North A14
042 Newmarket South A14
094 Northop Hall A55
036 Nottingham A52
093 Oakmere A556 One of the first to become a Little Chef
??? Ollerton A614
019 Peterborough A1
085 Picket Post A31
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, after the bypass (not converted).
100 Ross Spur A449 (M50) At the northbound Welcome Break site.
044 Royston A505
108 Saltash A38 One of the first to become a Little Chef.
047 Sawtry North A1
051 Sawtry South A1
056 Saxmundham A12
029 Selby Fork A1
??? Send A3 The first branch - opened in May 1973. Was Crossways Café.
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.
072 St Leonards A31
074 Stockbury A249
043 Swindon A419
023 Tempsford A1
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.
022 Ware A10
084 Western Avenue A40
080 Weston on the Green A34
054 Whitchurch A49
018 Whitstable A299
092 Widnes A562 One of the first to become a Little Chef.
057 Wisbech A47 Possibly 2 restaurants?
052 Wisley North A3
053 Wisley South A3
026 Worthing A27
021 York A64 One of the first to become a Little Chef.