IT ALL started with an 11-seat restaurant in Reading in 1958 – but after 50 years of feeding hungry travellers, one of our best known roadside brands is facing extinction.
Little Chef has been up for sale since last month. According to owner RCapital, the good news is that there are some potential buyers. The bad news is, they all want to consign the Little Chef brand to the bin. Instead McDonalds, Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken are lining up to buy the real estate and expand their branch empire.
The writing has been on the formica-covered tables for some time. Set up as a place for families on the move to eat away from truck-stop greasy spoons, the decline started as people switched from the A-roads to motorways.
A makeover of selected branches by Heston Blumenthal gave Little Chef a burst of publicity, but no new customers. Following that brief moment in the spotlight, the decline continued and last year 67 branches were axed and 600 staff sacked. Here in Scotland, we are down to just two.
A look at the menu helps explain the decline. Food trends have passed Little Chef like mascot Fat Charlie in a top of the range Ferrari. Behind the red and white façade, breakfast rules. The full Olympian fry up costs £7.69. In red type underneath, an additional slice of Ramsay of Carluke black pudding is on offer for a curious £1.19. As far as local sourcing goes, that’s it.
It was never really about the food. This week a customer lamented the looming closure on the basis that, unlike fast-food joints, Little Chef forced children to eat with a knife and fork. That’s something I suppose, but no-one is really going to mourn the passing of the £4.19 Hot Dog and chips. Yet, there is something sad about the decline of one of our iconic eating out brands. Perhaps it is the nostalgia. Most of us will have childhood memories of a Little Chef looming on the roadside. They represented a break from the monotony of the open road and the boredom of being stuck in the back seat listening to Radio 2.
And then there were the customers. Most restaurants rely on regulars, but Little Chef depended on a passing trade of itinerant travellers. You could happily spill your mug of tea over the man at the next table, safe in the knowledge that you would never see him again.
It could have been so different. Little Chef is facing closure at a time when being a chef has never been more fashionable. With burger chains submerged in horsemeat allegations and the big coffee companies hit by tax-avoidance allegations, a national chain of restaurants where real chefs cooked hearty and healthy meals for families should be booming not busting.
Instead, the end is nigh. The next time we fancy a monster breakfast and end up with a muffin and a bucket of latte, we only have ourselves to blame.