History of Welcome Break
An older Welcome Break service area, in 2005.
Welcome Break is the oldest surviving motorway name, but it has gone through a lot of changes, as this page explains.
See also: Welcome Break Logo History
Welcome Break were originally created in the 1970s by Allen Jones, an ex-Little Chef managing director who left the company when its owner, Trust Houses, merged with Forte. The name 'Welcome Break' was chosen by staff after his own choice 'Mr. Chef' was rejected for being too similar to its rival. The earliest known evidence of a Welcome Break Cafe is dated 1974.
Welcome Break sites followed a similar format to Little Chef, being small restaurants with waitress service. In the late 1970s, in a bid to rival Little Chef more seriously, Jones joined forces with rival and former Trust Houses MD Michael Pickard who had left Trust Houses to create Happy Eater in 1972.
By 1979 Welcome Break's 10 or so sites had all either closed or become Happy Eaters. The Welcome Break name was redundant but retained by the company.
The Imperial Group had come to own both Happy Eater and its assets, and four Motoross motorway services. In 1984 they applied the redundant Welcome Break name to the Motoross services, leaving open the possibility of using the brand elsewhere too.
The new Welcome Break head office was at Leicester Forest East and the company had inherited a good reputation from Motoross.
In this short period, the services used discreet colours and subdued lighting. The main restaurant was named Welcome Break, with a takeaway unit called Burger Break and, in some services, an ice cream kiosk. Electronic games were provided for children.
The Imperial Group were subjected to a hostile takeover from Hanson Trust, who moved all the hospitality names including Happy Eater and Anchor Hotels into one package ready to sell on. It was quickly purchased by Trusthouse Forte in 1986, who were again pleased with the Welcome Break brand and decided to use the name 'THF Welcome Break' at their new Sutton Scotney services.
Trusthouse Forte then decided to use Welcome Break's name at all nine of the Trusthouse Forte motorway services; the idea being that this would stop the notorious service station industry from damaging Fortes' precious reputation. The actual style was completely changed, introducing the icon swan and a large TV campaign which kicked it all off in 1988.
Like the other operators at the time, Forte began to kit out Welcome Break with a number of new facilities. Three Happy Eaters opened, as well as several motels branded either Forte Travelodge or Welcome Lodge. The restaurant would be The Granary, with a Julie's Pantry or La Baguette takeaway, and a sandwich shop named Piknics (shortly removed), and a shop called The Shop (with a large font and bright colours).
Each service area was also given a speciality shop, with examples being Book Stop, Music Stop, Flower Shop, Toy Store, Shirt Factor, Thorntons and Halfords. They registered the names 21st Street Audio and Visual and Fruit Tree, but these appear to have been used within the shop (branded 'The Shop').
In 1995 Forte announced that they were going to add a McDonald's to every one of their services, but the process was stopped after just two because Forte were acquired by Granada, a deal which included Welcome Break.
Granada described Welcome Break's original concept as "still looking good", but that they "have not been kept up to date", adding that Forte had "starved them of cash". They said that they wanted to add Burger King and Little Chef to all the services and make use of the Travelodge chain which they had also acquired as part of the deal, and that in doing this they wanted to make a much-doubted £500m from it.
Just months after buying them, Granada upped the prices at all of their services given that they now owned over 75% of the motorway market: for example the M4 is 189 miles long and yet the only services which weren't owned by Granada were at the very end. It's not surprising that they did make their £500m.
On 9 July 1996 the Monopolies and Mergers Commission ruled that Granada needed to sell Welcome Break's motorway sites. On 6 March 1997 the Welcome Break brand was sold to Investcorp for £476million, after a £400m plan from ASDA to create motorway hypermarkets fell through. The Commission ruled that the new Welcome Break would have to remove all of Granada's brands within six months, so Welcome Break created Red Hen and rolled out Welcome Lodge - leaving behind the likes of Travelodge which they had helped kick off. The wording of the rule meant that Welcome Break's A-road sites could stay with Granada, which they opted to take advantage of.
The new Welcome Break wanted to introduce new "food halls", which had facilities including a news stand, sweet shop and galleria, as well as La Brioche Doree and Cafe Forte. They were also trialling a shop called The Junction.
Investcorp and beyond
For a while former Red Hen units were left unused, before becoming Primo Lounges and now Starbucks. Welcome Break went on to change their shops to WHSmith, game arcades from Game Zone to Welcome Break Gaming, and restaurants from Food Connection to Eat In. After an unsuccessful trial with Sainsbury's, Waitrose was introduced.
After making a profit for the first time in a while, Investcorp put Welcome Break up for sale in 2008 with a price of around £500million. They were bought by Appia Investments, although the exact price is not known.
The Times listed Welcome Break as being the 81st biggest private company in 2008 (dropping 22 places since the year before), with annual sales of £631m and profits of £37m.
Welcome Break were the first operator to roll-out electric vehicle charging points, and truck wash facilities.
At the start of the 1990s, Welcome Break services were painted a pale blue. The chosen colour became darker, and then grey started to be used instead. Their new brands went hand-in-hand with the several stages of refurbishment which has been carried out at all of their services, trying to freshen up some of the older ones and introduce more modern facilities.
As part of this, they briefly painted many of their services orange (to match Coffee Primo) and red (for KFC), but instead settled on black to go with their new colour scheme which was introduced in 2006. In 2007 they wanted to display 'supergraphic' advertisements stretched across the internal walkways at all of their services. They were all refused on road safety grounds.
The new black colour scheme was joined by large pictures ('murals') relevant to the area surrounding each site. These were later phased out and replaced by an all-black, and then a cream colour scheme.
Welcome Break have talked about branching into another sector all together, with the opening of services at Cardiff Gate and after that Peartree, both of which aim for local traffic as much as long-distance traffic. This turned out to be followed by the introduction of more take-away units, shops and drive thrus aimed at commuter traffic.
They took over the catering at the Eurotunnel UK Terminal, and later agreed to take on the freight terminal as well, but this agreement later ended, despite rumours it could be the start of more non-motorway units.
Welcome Break also operate motels outside of motorway services. Currently their only such site is at M1 J40.
In August 2018 Applegreen made a move to purchase 55% of Welcome Break. This gives Welcome Break a connection to many small UK forecourts, to Irish motorway services and to more brand partners such as Costa and Freshii. An announcement as to how the two chains will divide their assets - assuming any changes are to be made at all - is expected in the next six months.