With the loss-making Little Chef in new hands, how can one of Britain's best-known brands win customers back? A food critic samples the fare and has a few helpful suggestions.
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
"We're open and we're happy," is the chirpy telephone response from Little Chef in Hockliffe, on day one of life in the hands of its new owners.
Thirty-nine of the 235 branches had closed overnight, including food critic Nigel Barden's first choice for brunch, Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire, where a notice stuck on a locked door told the sorry tale in a dozen words.
But the Hockliffe branch, a 30-minute drive up the M1 into Bedfordshire, is open for business, nestled, as it is, alongside a Travelodge on the A5.
The menu needs a revamp, says food critic Nigel Barden
Everything looks just as it did as a child, with wooden partitions separating the tables, a speckled carpet, checked curtains, clean toilets, an open kitchen and a friendly waitress.
The look is borrowed from the US diners which inspired Sam Alper to open the first Little Chef in Reading in 1958.
"Even the curtains are 'mum's apple pie'. It's home-on-the-range, the Waltons-meets-Little Chef," says Barden, who believes the firm's consistency - "you know what you're getting" - is one of its strengths.
But there are only three other customers dotted around the dining area - a shadow of the clamouring crowds one might expect, given it is one of Britain's best-known brands.
What has also changed is the menu. Still wedded to the fry-up, it makes some concessions to more contemporary tastes, with ciabatta sandwiches and toasted paninis. Both, however, are off today's menu because the deliveries have not arrived.
Little Chef's famed Olympic Breakfast looks like it could feed a family for a week. And at £6.99, it's not bad value, although the menu is, apparently, seen as over-priced by many customers. But is the Olympic a podium winner for our expert?
"It's not the most exciting but it's how I imagined," says Barden. "The sausage is a bit processed but tastier than it looked. At least they don't use a lot of oil because they cook it on a griddle pan."
Olympic breakfast £6.99 (above)
Pie of the day £6.99
Classic burger £5.99
Barden is gladdened by the sight of bottled sauces but while impressed by the chicken in the Caesar salad, he thinks the dish "over-dressed" and the oily croutons lack crunch.
Efforts to adapt to a modern audience are, however, clear. The sausages are "outdoor-reared", the eggs free-range and, in these brand-aware times, the logos of Heinz, Young's and New Covent Garden pepper the menu card.
Despite such efforts, the chips are most certainly down for the chain. Chief executive Simon Heath has said as much, seeing it as "out of date". The coffee poster on the wall could not have expressed the burning question any better: "Need a little pick-me-up?"
...AND THE NEW
Steak and caramelised onion ciabatta £6.45
Grilled pepper and red onion panini £5.25
New Covent Garden soup £2.99
Warm poached salmon £6.45
But it will take more than a blueberry muffin and a passable cappuccino to steer Little Chef out of the doldrums.
Mr Heath says it has suffered at the hands of increased competition from revamped service stations and big names like Marks & Spencer expanding to the motorways.
Barden agrees. "They've been overtaken by culinary events. People look for a different style of dining," says the critic, who believes it wouldn't have a "prayer of survival" were it on any High Street.
"You could keep the breakfast on but you have to be seen to be offering something different. They should make the salads and healthy options as good as they can. Get produce as fresh as possible.
"If you look around the walls, all the pictures are bacon and eggs and fatty puddings. There's nothing to suggest healthy options here."
Inspire the staff to push the other options, he adds, and get family-friendly with organic baby food and facilities for warming bottles up. And update the decor. "It looks a bit lived-in. The carpets and chairs have had quite a tough life."
Spirits remain high, despite the uncertainty
But modernisation doesn't sit well with Little Chef's biggest fans - its mascot, Fat Charlie, survived a controversial plan to slim him down a few years ago. He represents a strong brand which customers like David Griffiths, 39, recognise.
Tucking into his toasted tea cakes on the way back from Heathrow to Northamptonshire, he says Little Chef is "good for a cup of tea and you can't beat the breakfast".
"McDonalds are in-and-out places, here you get served at the table. It was a big treat when you're a kid and it hasn't changed. Maybe that's their downfall."
But the week's events are not just about brands and balance sheets. As one member of staff noted, "imagine coming into work and being told you don't have a job tomorrow".
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I have had the worst food and the worst service ever in a Little Chef. The restaurant was dirty as was the uniform of all the staff. The food had obviously been cooked straight from the freezer and was still partially frozen when it arrived at the table. Not an experience to repeat
I was really sorry to hear that so many Little Chefs were going to be closed down, I remember also when they were going to slim down the chef on the logo. All I can really say is that Little Chef brings back so many good memories of going on holiday with my parents and being treated to the Olympic Breakfast and their breakfast has never changed with constant top ups on coffee, They are the most friendly of places compared to so many of the motorway service stations and you can really sit and relax rather than being pushed out so the atmosphere gives you the chance to appreciate the break on a long journey !! Keep Little Chef open !!!
Theresa Swift, London
Does anyone remember the similar chain of Happy Eater restaurants, whose logo had a weird disembodied smiley face with its hand down its throat as if to try and make itself throw up? Ah, the memories...
If I'm doing a long journey on A roads I'm more than happy to use a Little Chef, but surely the point is that most people tend to use motorways for longer journeys these days? If they could open Little Chefs up on or near motorways I'd prefer use them instead of the usual services found - providing they maintained their prices, of course.
I remember going to these places as a child, often whilst traveling on holiday, and then visiting them myself as I've grown up. It has saddened me over recent years to watch the slow decline of these places, the tatty interiors and the inevitable closures. Something had to give i guess, but I hope they can turn things around. Here's hoping for Little Chef at 50 celebrations!
I once refused to pay the amount they charged me for a coke and made quite a scene. I ordered a coke with my meal, expecting at least it to be from a pump or at the VERY LEAST from a glass bottle but no, she comes over with the glass and a can of coke, pours it into a glass and now they can charge me £1.59 for a coke I could buy for 50p in the vending machine not so far away? They're called Little Thief for a reason.
Tom Jacobs, Clacton-on-Sea
I used to be a big fan of Little Chef's. Whilst it was never haute cuisine; you always new what you'd get and it was of an even quality. Now they seem to be run either by spotty faced, 15 year olds kids intent on 'messing around' with their colleagues or by manicly depressed adults. Neither of these parties seem to be service oriented.
As an aside, they should also bring back the brunch breakfast and stop charging 15 pence to read the papers (when was that introduced).
Simon Ablett, Sheffield
Why can't Little Chef lead the way by forming links with local food suppliers.
Graham Watson, Thornbury, Bristol
Little Chef at Thrapston must be the only place in the world where they can serve scrambled eggs and toast in so many different ways each morning.
Scrambled eggs on toast, with toast, under the toast, sandwiched etc...
It would be a shame to lose such creativity and imagination. So much so I have booked to go there again!
I know there were times when we might have stopped to eat at a Little Chef but chose somewhere different simply because of the time it would take, even at off peak times. Maybe a "quick" menu would add a new dimension to it?
Debbie, Surrey, England
I love a little chef fry up now and again. I find the 3 on my way to Hull are always clean, the food is great value for money, despite friends calling it little thief as they think its not good value. I just hope the ones on the a63 have survived along with the one on the A1079.
there are healthy options to go with the fry up, the decor could do with updating, but can anyone really imagine a long drive without seeing the welcoming chef on the side of the road? at least you know you can get a good meal at a reasonable price.
Andie Riley, Leeds, England
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