The History of Little Chef
Little Chef in the 1980s.
Once a firm favourite of many road users, Little Chef was started in 1958 by British Caravan manufacturer Sam Alper (Sprite Touring) and catering boss Peter Merchant (Gardner Merchant), after they returned from a trip to the USA, where the two had been promoting their businesses. They took inspiration from the success of the American diner chains which used compact, transportable structures that would be moved around.
This page charts how it grew to be giant, and how it all became too much.
- 1 Reading
- 2 Trust Houses: A Solid Start
- 3 Trusthouse Forte: The Favourite Child
- 4 Granada: Growth and Concerns
- 5 Permira: The Unwanted One
- 6 People's Restaurant Group: A Poisoned Chalice
- 7 RCapital: Bold Ideas
- 8 Kout Food Group: Fattening The Goose
- 9 Euro Garages: The Eager Anaesthetist
- 10 Visitor Feedback
One particular diner they had seen in Leedy, Oklahoma, was called 'Little Chef'. It had been manufactured by Valentine Industries of Wichita, Kansas.
The two decided this would be the perfect basis to start their own chain. The first branch was opened on Oxford Road in Reading, in the car park of the former Rex Cinema. It was a waitress-service restaurant with 11 seats, built in a prefabricated cabin painted in red and white.
Allen Jones was the company's managing director.
Trust Houses: A Solid Start
With no chain restaurants existing to compete with Little Chef, it was looking attractive, and by 1960 it had been acquired by Trust Houses. The chain grew by opening branches alongside main roads, including North Muskham, Astley, Fourwentways, Mirfield, Alwalton, the original Hogs Back, Bagshot and Penmaenmawr. Many of those have since been re-built. They were usually positioned next to petrol stations or in urban areas, including a couple of city centre branches like Regent's Park and Bedford which soon closed.
In its first 10 years, Little Chef had opened 26 sites. The fast expansion of Trust Houses caught the attention of Fortes, who purchased Trust Houses.
Trusthouse Forte: The Favourite Child
Now Trust Houses was part of the large Fortes empire, the combined firm was keen to dominate the highways, especially routes which were used by families on holiday.
Frustrated by difficulties with the planning system, in 1970 Forte sent teams of people out to sample existing transport cafés and, if they liked what they saw, they offered the owners considerable sums of money to sell and move out within a week. By 1972 over 50 restaurants had been opened in this fashion, bringing the number of Little Chefs to 100. These came in a variety of shapes and sizes including old pubs, hotels and garages.
At this point, Forte experimented with some self-service restaurants. A considerable amount was spent on marketing. When built from scratch, restaurants had flat roofs and large windows.
Not content with restricting themselves to the UK, two restaurants were opened in France. By 1977 there were now 174 restaurants, but the brand was losing money. Some restaurants closed, including the French ones.
Full details: Motor Chef
Proud of the Little Chef chain, Trusthouse Forte decided to take their motorway services and turn them in to Little Chef's bigger cousin. To do this, they named the services Motor Chef, and copied some of the styling.
This was later undone, but instead branches of Little Chefs were introduced to Trusthouse Forte services. This started with Charnock Richard in 1982 and many more followed.
In 1986, the motorway Little Chefs were described by Which? as "rather old-fashioned".
Little Chef Lodge
Full details: Little Chef Lodge
Forte decided to pair some of its flagship Little Chefs with budget hotels. These were known as Little Chef Lodge.
In 1988, all 28 Little Chef Lodges became Travelodge, beginning a long relationship between Little Chef and Travelodge.
In 1986, Forte purchased The Imperial Group, which gave them access to Jones's 85-branch Happy Eater. Jones quit and started another rival chain, AJ's. Amid an investigation by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Forte chose to leave Happy Eater as an upmarket alternative for customers, but several planned Happy Eaters were changed to Little Chef.
Although Little Chef marketed itself as a family brand, insiders revealed that it was actually catering for anybody left out by the current market, and as such it mostly serving businessmen. New-builds had a pitched roof with red-brick walls.
Kelly's Kitchen was acquired in 1990, and Forte converted all 18 of their restaurants to Little Chef as well as inheriting a number of outstanding planning permissions. These were large, tall buildings. Little Chef's restaurants now included a number of airport and town centre sites.
Aware that many customers are looking to get in and out again quickly, in 1994 Forte introduced Little Chef Coffee Stop to many of their restaurants. Some of these had their own units, while others occupied a smaller area. Four Little Chef Expresses were also introduced.
Starting in 1993, Forte decided to really push the Little Chef and Travelodge brands.
First, they were introduced to Ireland, with five restaurants opening there. Then, under a deal with Spanish oil and service station company Repsol, they opened two sites in Spain, with a further 50 planned.
Granada sold three hotels to Forte, which became large Little Chef/Travelodge combinations. An additional site was acquired from Pavilion.
New-builds had a grey-pan tiled roof, with lightly-coloured bricks and large windows. Forte were finding Little Chef more lucrative than Happy Eater, so began to convert some.
The new colour marked an effort to attract more evening diners, with new furniture and air conditioning.
Granada: Growth and Concerns
In 1995, Trusthouse Forte faced a hostile takeover from Granada, with the combined firm now having access to a large number of brands. During the takeover Granada accused Little Chef of being "tired", but after a few menu changes they became big fans of Little Chef.
Granada converted all of the Happy Eaters to Little Chef, as well as converting the AJ's restaurants they operated.
After Granada were forced to sell Welcome Break, the Little Chefs at their services were soon removed, and replaced by Red Hen. Even so, Granada introduced Little Chef to most of its A-road and motorway services, and Little Chef Express was introduced to shopping centres.
Next, Granada purchased the remaining AJ's restaurants and converted these to Little Chef, as well as converting their own Rock Island Diners.
With the support of a new prefabricated building design, by 1999 the total number of Little Chefs had reached its peak of 439. This reflected in an intense monopoly on many major A-roads, where previous rival restaurants had all been taken over. Granada's had a tendency to take advantage of monopolies, by raising prices.
Meanwhile, their enthusiasm for expansion appeared to have come at the expense of refurbishment and maintenance, which is why Little Chef's reputation for being a time-warp became widespread. In particular, it was an embarrassing year for Little Chef as the BBC's Watchdog took them to task over their menu's claim that the food is "freshly cooked" after revealing that some of it was reheated.
Full details: Little Chef Choices
When Granada was acquired by Compass, this meant a whole host of brand names were now sister companies. To take advantage of this, Caffe Ritazza, Upper Crust, Wiseguys Pizza and Harry Ramsden's were combined with Little Chef to create branches named Little Chef Choices. Choices was accompanied by a thorough refurbishment which aimed to attract more evening diners.
Compass also registered the name Little Chef Classics, but this doesn't appear to have been used.
By 2001, Compass had reduced the number of restaurants to 406. Market saturation, changing customer travel patterns and reduced consumer demand appeared to be factors. They said that "bigger was better", and a number of quiet restaurants were going to be replaced by one busy one.
Compass's roadside division had its hands full managing Moto, so it put Little Chef up for sale. There was some debate about whether it needed to be sold with Travelodge, but Compass decided they were too much to unravel and sold them both together.
Permira: The Unwanted One
Standalone restaurants began to close.
In 2002, Little Chef and Travelodge were purchased by Permira of Canada, who created a new company called Travel Lodge Little Chef. Speculation was rife that Permira only wanted Travelodge and had no interest in the Little Chefs that did not have a motel. Many of the motorway restaurants continued to be owned by Compass, under a franchise agreement.
Between 2003 and 2005, almost 150 restaurants were closed, mostly those without ancillary facilities or with intensive competition. Permira spent a year separating the administrative aspects of Little Chef and Travelodge, making a sale likely.
People's Restaurant Group: A Poisoned Chalice
Full details: Coffee Tempo!
In 2005 Permira quickly sold Little Chef to People's Restaurant Group. Little Chef announced what they called a nationwide "price crash", and decided to emphasise the Britishness of the brand. Noting road users' love for coffee, £1.1m was spent on branding Little Chef's coffee offer as Coffee Tempo!.
In 2005 the Irish branches were closed, as were almost all of the Burger Kings. The two Dublin restaurants became 'Metzo' (now 'Travelodge Bar') and the three others became Eddie Rocket's Diners.
The following year, the impassioned founder of People's Restaurant Group, Laurence Wosskow, suffered from health problems and there were fears this could affect the performance of Little Chef. Some restaurants had their land sold and then leased back, raising short-term cash but increasing their future running costs.
That winter it was announced that Little Chef was on the verge of falling in to administration. On the afternoon that Little Chef did fall in to administration, People's Restaurant Group agreed to sell 196 of its 234 restaurants to venture capital group RCapital for less than £10m.
The new owner's role was to salvage the potential of what it had. Administrators PricewaterhouseCoopers were tasked with finding a buyer for the remaining 38 sites, but these did not trade as Little Chefs.
RCapital: Bold Ideas
Full details: Heston Blumenthal
For 2008, Little Chef wanted to celebrate its 50th birthday, and planned a marketing campaign to raise its profile. The campaign was powered largely by enthusiasts, as successive sales had caused Little Chef to lose all its records.
Enthused by their own 'Bring Back Little Chef' campaign, four former restaurants reopened, with the target being to get the branches from 193 to 200.
Little Chef recruited Heston Blumenthal to redesign its restaurants, and star in a documentary about the brand. Following his work, three restaurants were redesigned, with ten more lined up. The refurbished Popham received national attention.
The motorway operators had been ending Little Chef franchises, and in 2010 the last motorway Little Chef at Toddington closed.
Throughout 2009 and 2010, more unprofitable restaurants closed, bringing the total down to 162. One of the more unusual closures was Peartree, where Little Chef claimed they wanted to stay but the landlord wouldn't let them renew the lease. It could be that they didn't have the money, or that another aspect of their reputation was holding them back.
Even so, with the company having sized down, director Ian Pegler announced he had made the overall firm profitable again.
Full details: Wonderfully British
In 2011, ten restaurants received a thorough refurbishment, designed to bring them in line with Blumenthal's work. Like Blumenthal's, these received excellent feedback, although it didn't last.
In October 2011, Little Chef became the first company in the UK to introduce a nationwide network of electric vehicle charging points.
Ten of the franchised Burger King sites lost their Little Chefs, leaving only the Burger King. The total dropped to 159.
A dramatic twist came in 2012. Little Chef announced that a further 67 of its restaurants would be closing because they are unprofitable. Many of these had not been named publicly. Their theory was that with only 94 restaurants left, these could easily be refurbished and maintained. On the day of the announcement, Little Chef spent the day as the top trending topic on Twitter, as people discussed the chain and the 500 job losses.
Many of those which closed had only recently re-opened. The total actually dropped down to 119, plus the two Burger King-only franchises. Many old Little Chefs had been purchased by Starbucks franchisees.
Further changes that Spring saw the figures drop to 111 restaurants, plus five Burger King only sites. Work started on the first of refurbishments, which went without a Good To Go offer. Instead, Coffee Tempo!, which by now had been scaled right back, was replaced by Little Chef Express.
By Autumn, another wave of closures had been announced, leaving 80 restaurants and 5 Burger King-only franchises.
To tackle the torrent of negative headlines, Little Chef announced they would be bringing back franchised restaurants, and opening more Little Chef Expresses.
Kout Food Group: Fattening The Goose
In April 2013, RCapital announced they would be selling Little Chef. They described their progress with the company as "our biggest and longest turnaround in nine years". Costa, Starbucks, Moto and Welcome Break were all said to be interested, but instead it was sold to Kout Food Group.
Kout Food Group saw their role as picking up a struggling chain and increasing its value. Firstly, Good To Go was officially withdrawn.
In October 2013, Kout announced they would be opening more Burger King franchises at existing sites. These were mostly at branches which had been lost some time ago. They also encouraged their restaurants to hold community events during December 2013, as part of Little Chef's 55th birthday.
Kout wanted to increase the rate of refurbishments. However by the summer of 2014, more branches had closed, bringing the total to 73 restaurants plus the five Burger King-only franchises. Of those that remained, Kout refurbished Feering, Lolworth, Kettering West and Warminster. They also introduced Subway franchises to Markham Moor, Rugeley, Saltash, Stoke, Warminster and Whitemare Pool.
By 2016, the rate of closures had slowed down. The total was down to 70 Little Chefs and 8 Burger King-only franchises. Kout Food Group considered that their work was done, and started looking for new owners, with McDonald's, KFC and Costa interested.
Euro Garages: The Eager Anaesthetist
The fast-expanding forecourt chain Euro Garages had taken an interest in the sale of Little Chef. Little Chef stopped responding to customer feedback, and those who like the chain became concerned. Kout argued that their work was to save as many jobs as possible, which they had done by making the chain worth purchasing, but that their role was not to save the brand.
On 1 February 2017 Euro Garages purchased Little Chef's land and confirmed to staff that they would be closing all the branches, and replacing them with other brands such as Starbucks. The work was expected to be complete in Autumn 2017 although not all branches had confirmed plans for their future.
Ten days later, the first closure happened at Winterbourne Abbas, where the lease had expired and was not renewed.
On 9 March 2017, the conversions began, with an average of 2-7 branches closing each month. Most reopened as a Starbucks two weeks later, but Greggs and KFC were also been used. Starbucks business cards were produced apologising for the closure of "this Little Chef store". Of the remaining Little Chefs, most have had their opening hours cut back from a 10pm close to 3pm.
In July 2017, rumours surfaced that Euro Garages, who were trying to expand their forecourt operations at the same time, were falling behind with their own schedule and may not be able to convert the restaurants before the end of the year. Some of the larger and busier sites weren't so suitable to be converted, but Euro Garages had only been willing to pay for one year's use of the name and didn't see themselves as a restaurant operator.
After a number of concerns from staff about a lack of information, in January 2018 Euro Garages started taking down all remaining references to Little Chef, leaving behind bare walls and an outdated website which appear to summarise the history of the brand. Meanwhile, the surviving restaurants continue on borrowed time under the barely-mentioned name EG Diner.
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