November 10, 2005
For Sale: Little Chef — 'I don't think anyone would come here out of choice'
Living here in the U.S. I'd never heard of Little Chef until Sarah Lyall's September 20 New York Times story about the venerable British restaurant's chain having gone on the sales block recently, for the second time in the past three years.
The first Little Chef appeared as an 11–seat cafe back in 1958 in Reading, Berkshire; at its peak the chain numbered nearly 400 restaurants along roads and highways all over England.
It's still one of the five most recognized brands in Britain and attracts 15 million customers a year.
A few comments from the Times article, from recent patrons of the establishment:
"The food is bad, the service is terrible, the prices are overpriced and they haven't kept up with the times in terms of menu, style or cleanliness."
"A necessary evil."
"Little Chef is – to be quite open and honest — not a very health–conscious catering establishment." [Little Chef company spokesman!]
"The food was rubbery — but at least it was food."
"It's always there."
"The good thing is that the beans drown out the taste of everything else."
Among the spécialités de la maison:
• Salad with warm bacon and black pudding — black pudding being a conglomeration of pig's blood, pork fat and cereal
• Bacon bap — "A piece of limp, sweaty, fatty bacon enclosed in a flat, fraying white roll"
So, if you've got some spare change lying around and feel like owning a British institution don't hesitate to make an offer.
Here's the Times story.
- For Sale: Roadside Fixture With Wary but Loyal Patrons
Say what you like about the Little Chef roadside restaurants -- their haphazard service, their eggs swimming in grease, the ceaseless sizzling of their kitchens' grills.
For the British motorist, Little Chef holds a unique appeal.
''It's always there,'' explained June Sharkey, a customer at the Little Chef on the A14 road outside this city, about 50 miles northeast of London.
''It's a place to stop. And if you think about it, if they close it, there wouldn't be anywhere to go to the toilet on the motorway.''
With its familiar logo of a fat little man in a chef's hat -- the Pillsbury Doughboy with an English accent -- Little Chef has been a fixture on British roadsides since 1958, when it began life as an 11-seat cafe in Reading, Berkshire.
But while British cuisine has moved on in recent years, Little Chef is still living in the past, evoking memories of a time when no one went to a British restaurant expecting to eat well, when food was universally overcooked, canned, covered with fat and bread crumbs or drowning in a floury, glutinous sauce.
In an age of vegetarian ciabattas and a zillion kinds of coffee, Little Chef is a processed-ham sandwich of a restaurant, a place where baked beans count as vegetables and a single slice of white bread qualifies as a side dish ($1.60 extra, butter included).
Now Little Chef is up for sale, for the second time in less than three years, after a tough period in which some 130 underperforming outlets were summarily shut down, leaving 234 behind to serve a less-than-grateful nation.
And although the chain's prospective buyers have hinted at ambitions to remake it to suit 21st-century tastes, no one has yet found the answer to a question that seems to stymie even Little Chef's customers.
Why on earth would anyone want to eat there?
''The food is bad, the service is terrible, the prices are overpriced and they haven't kept up with the times in terms of menu, style or cleanliness,'' groused Roy Gibbens, 32, a salesman on his way to an appointment.
Yet there he was, wolfing down his Little Chef lunch: a thin slab of cheeseburger on a puffy bun, surrounded by French fries of the palest beige and a small mound of lettuce.
''We're in a rush, and it's right by the side of the road,'' he explained, a little apologetically.
His co-worker, Matthew Melly, 31, called Little Chef ''a necessary evil,'' as if it were dental work, or taxation.
The restaurant is a divisive factor in his parents' marriage, he said.
His father is not a fan, while his mother responds to the Little Chef logo the way Pavlov's dogs did to the sound of the bell: no matter where they are, or how far they have to go, she insists on pulling over for a cup of coffee, immediately.
''He'll try to point something out on the other side of the road, but she'll always spot it and say, 'Look, it's a Little Chef!''' Mr. Melly said.
Indeed, the ubiquitous Little Chef logo makes it one of the five most recognized brands in the Britain and still helps draw some 15 million customers a year, the company says.
Last year, the current owner, TLLC Group Holdings, which also owns the Travelodge chain of roadside motels, scrapped plans to modernize the fat guy on the logo by slimming him down, after thousands of customers protested that they preferred his familiar cheery, tubby self.
''From a nationwide brand recognition point of view, it's hugely strong,'' said Trevor Watson, a spokesman for Davis Coffer Lyons, the broker handling the sale. ''It's just a brand that has lost its way over the last few years.''
This is partly because of changes in driving habits.
When Little Chef opened, Britain had not yet completed its national highway system, and the trip from London to, say, Cornwall could easily take a day.
People had to stop somewhere; Little Chef, like the old Howard Johnsons along I-95 in the northeastern United States, was safe and familiar, but also a treat.
''What you previously had was the horrible burger stalls that you see on the side of the road, and this was the first branded, permanent restaurant,'' said a Little Chef spokesman, asking that his name not be used according to company policy.
''The logo was cheeky and cheerful; there was a sense of fun; they gave you free lollipops. Most people used it on the way to holiday.''
But people take fewer domestic vacations now, and car trips are shorter.
Faster roads have led to huge rest-stop complexes with restaurants, coffee bars and shops under one roof. Tastes are changing, too.
''Little Chef is -- to be quite open and honest -- not a very health-conscious catering establishment,'' admitted the company spokesman.
That means a menu heavy with fried, battered, smothered items like fish and chips, breaded scampi and chicken swimming in cheese sauce.
That means a salad selection featuring one made with ''warm bacon and black pudding'' -- black pudding being a conglomeration of pig's blood, pork fat and cereal.
That means that Mrs. Sharkey's Little Chef meal consisted of a pot of tea (for $3.40 per person) and what is known as a ''bacon bap,'' a piece of limp, sweaty, fatty bacon enclosed in a flat, fraying white roll.
The décor matched the meal.
Right next to the highway and suffused with the sounds of traffic and the smell of grease, the restaurant -- with its dull ecru walls, flecked maroon carpet and tables of dirty breakfast dishes -- had the curious effect of making one feel simultaneously agoraphobic and claustrophobic, trapped in an enclosed space but outside on the road at the same time.
''I don't think anyone would come here out of choice,'' said Leslie Millman, an importer on his way to Ipswich for a funeral.
At lunch, he was eating eggs whose yolks intermingled with the sauce from his baked beans.
The food was ''rubbery,'' Mr. Millman said, but at least it was food.
''If this goes, what's the alternative?'' he said. ''The good thing is that the beans drown out the taste of everything else.''
Star Trek Levitating Pen
Anti–gravity is here and working for you, right on your desk.
At least, that's what it looks like as this pen floats in space, attached to nothing visible to the human eye.
Aliens, just keep silent for the time being, would you please?
Just another holodeck fixture.
But wait — there's more.
The droids are throwing in a digital clock (Earth time format).
And that's not all: if you order now you'll get, at absolutely no additional charge, a built–in thermometer with readings in both Celsius and Fahrenheit.
There's an awful lot of futuristic technology packed into this small wonder.
MorphWorld: Cameron Crowe into John Kerry
Seems obvious once you look.
Furniture designer Russell Pinch (below) had long wished to work with hazel wood but could not find a source.
Then, one day, he met a man in Dorset, England who grew hazel trees for river dams.
Pinch and his father John, a furniture maker, obtained permission from the grower and wandered through his hazel forests, collecting branches.
They dried them and then bundled them tightly together with metal pins to create the Twig Bench (above) and the Twig Cube.
The bench measures 63" x 18" x 18"; the cube is 18" on each side.
The bench costs $2,025 and the cube is $970 here.
joeTV — The rough beast draws ever nearer...
My erstwhile producer–director, Ms. Shawn Zehnder Lea, laboring away down in my super–secret Mississippi skunkworks, recently emerged from months of round–the–clock sessions aided by the efforts of my crack research team (she mentioned, in a wry aside, that without my team's input she probably could've been done in about two or three hours — but I'm sure she was just kidding... don't you think?) with what might well be joeTV's first look.
I like it.
It's got that certain — how shall I say it? — je ne sais quoi.
You GO girl!
[via Shawn Zehnder Lea and everythingandnothing]
Addendum 12:29 p.m. today:
1) This post was prepared weeks ago and I forgot about it, so recent posts already have noted this new visual.
2) A reader commented that my new .tv domain name takes you to a bad place.
My technical engineer tells me that I've been hijacked or whatever the internet equivalent is.
He will fix it so that it goes to somewhere nice until it's time to go on the air.
Wacky Waker Alarm Clock — 'Wake to the friendly sound of your favorite farm animal'
Just like back when you were working the north forty.
Choose from rooster, pig or cow.
On/Off switch; second hand.
7" x 5" x 2.5".
Requires three AA batteries (not included).
How safe is your plane? A little–known registry of safe airlines
When you go to the doctor do you feel better knowing the physician has graduated from a real medical school and passed her specialty board examinations?
Well, guess what?
Of the world's more than 250 airlines, only 58 have passed the "Operational Safety Audit" of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Is yours one of them?
You can find out here.
If you're reading this on a Lufthansa flight with in–flight internet access it might be better to stop here and resume after you've landed.
Assuming, of course....
But I digress.
I only learned of the existence of this resource when I read Scott McCartney's "The Middle Seat" column in the September 6 Wall Street Journal.
The IATA program was launched in 2001 and works like this:
• Accredited auditors from one of six companies go in and examine an airline from mechanics to management, cargo to cabin.
• Typically a team of six experts goes in for five days.
• If problems are found, an airline has 12 months to correct them.
• Only after this has been done can the airline be publicly identified as meeting international standards.
Interesting, isn't it, that only 58 of over 250 airlines (less than 25%) have volunteered to be evaluated?
McCartney wrote, "Some safety experts believe that airline finances, absent the cardinal oversight that carriers in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe get, can be a predictor of possible trouble. That's been a concern in some of the recent crashes: whether financially struggling airlines scrimped on maintenance that contributed to a crash."
All this was of more or less academic interest to me until September 21 when I watched a gripping live TV broadcast of a JetBlue plane with its nose landing wheel locked perpendicular to the correct orientation (top of this post) circle Los Angeles International Airport for several hours, dumping fuel into the Pacific Ocean in preparation for a possible crash landing.
The pilot brought the plane in perfectly, feathering it to the ground on its useless front wheel assembly right down the runway's center line.
But then I read a disturbing sentence in a story about the problem of the malfunctioning nose wheel: Jet Blue farms out maintenance of its planes to Canada — and El Salvador.
In El Salvador mechanics make about 10% what they do in the U.S., so a financially struggling airline — do you know of one that isn't? — may not be able to stay in the air without cutting costs across the board.
Maintenance is a big one.
But then I didn't see anything more about this remarkable fact, the outsourcing of one of the most important things an airline does, until September 27 when Harold Myerson of the Washington Post wrote an Op–Ed column about this remarkable revelation.
He noted that Salvadoran mechanics make $300 to $1,000 a month, far less than their U.S.–based counterparts.
More importantly, only about one–third of the Salvadoran mechanics have passed the exam that qualifies them for the an FAA license.
Any mechanic working in the U.S. is required to have such a license before touching a plane.
Me, I think this is extraordinary.
And I guarantee you every single passenger and crew member aboard JetBlue Flight 292 on September 21, 2005 would agree with me.
Here's McCartney's Wall Street Journal article.
- Researching Your Airline's Safety Record
Spate of Crashes Prompts Efforts to Scrutinize Carriers; A Guide to the Ratings
In the wake of six major airline crashes in the past five weeks, European nations are "blacklisting" carriers they believe should be avoided by travelers. But there is a better way for travelers to decide whether to fly a particular carrier: the growing number of resources that track airline safety.
The International Air Transport Association, for instance, has a highly regarded program called "Operational Safety Audit" that independently evaluates airlines.
It's like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for air carriers, and while it certainly is no guarantee against a crash, it is a good resource for travelers to help evaluate airlines.
Currently 58 airlines have met the test, which was launched in 2001. An audit is good for only two years -- after that, airlines get re-examined.
The list is available at www.iata.org/iosa/registry.
IATA has designated six different companies, mostly aviation consultants but including United Airlines, as accredited auditors who go in and examine an airline -- from mechanics to management, cargo to cabin.
Typically a team of six experts goes in for five days, IATA says.
If problems are found, the airline has 12 months to correct them, and only after that is the airline publicly identified as meeting international standards.
"It's an excellent tool," says Robert Vandel, executive vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation, based in Alexandria, Va.
"This is stuff we in the aviation industry have agreed on. This is what the standards should be."
Until more airlines -- there are more than 250 carriers in the world -- step up to the plate for auditing, the list isn't as comprehensive as it needs to be.
But as it gets more use from travelers, airlines will feel more pressure to get on the list.
And that should raise safety standards.
Evaluating airline safety, ranking carriers or even predicting crashes is an extremely difficult task.
Airline crashes are very rare events -- there's one crash on average for every three million takeoffs.
Since they are largely random events, trying to predict them is virtually impossible.
But not all airlines are alike.
Some safety experts believe that airline finances, absent the careful oversight that carriers in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe get, can be a predictor of possible trouble.
That's been a concern in some of the recent crashes: whether financially struggling airlines scrimped on maintenance that contributed to a crash.
The track record of the airline also can be an indicator of trouble: Does the airline run a tight, on-time operation?
Has it had a rash of incidents that could easily turn into accidents?
Is its training of crews adequate?
But the blacklisting in Europe has the look of a rush to judgment.
Safety experts note that France and Belgium, which released their lists of banned carriers ahead of a forthcoming European Union list expected next year, haven't specified their criteria for inclusion on the blacklist, or said how airlines were evaluated.
"Is the criteria scientific, or just politically expedient," says Mr. Vandel of the Flight Safety Foundation.
"Nobody I know knows what the criteria are."
In addition, the lists include just a small handful of tiny airlines.
France named five; Belgium named nine.
The lists are of limited utility for travelers.
None of the airlines involved in the rash of the five August crashes, which killed 330 people, were on the Europeans' lists that have been released.
Perhaps more telling, none of the carriers involved are on the IATA list of carriers passing an "Operational Safety Audit."
On Aug. 23, at least 41 people died when TANS Peru Flight 204, a Boeing 737, tried to make an emergency landing during a storm.
On Aug. 16, 152 people died when a Colombian-registered West Caribbean Airways charter went down in Venezuela, apparently after both engines failed.
On Aug. 14, 121 people died when a Cyprus-registered Helios Airways 737 lost cabin pressure, ran out of gas and plunged into the mountains north of Athens, Greece.
On Aug. 6, 16 people were believed to have died when a plane operated by Tunisia's Tuninter crashed off Sicily.
And on Aug. 2, all 309 people survived aboard an Air France Airbus A340 that overshot a Toronto runway and caught fire.
And then yesterday, a Mandala Airlines jetliner slammed into a crowded neighborhood in Indonesia's third-largest city, killing at least 147 people, many on the ground.
Instead of focusing on airlines, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration offers a list of countries that it says have inadequate oversight over their airlines, at least according to standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.
It's a more meaningful tool for travelers than the European blacklist; it is available at the FAA's Web site. (Go here, and click on "Results.")
Airlines fall into one of two camps under the FAA rankings: does or doesn't meet ICAO standards.
It adds an asterisk to countries that don't meet standards and don't have their own airlines flying to the U.S., such as Belize and Zimbabwe.
Countries that don't meet ICAO standards and do have airlines flying to the U.S. are subject to heightened FAA scrutiny.
They include Argentina, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Cote d'Ivoire, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Guyana, Nauru, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, Serbia and Montenegro, Turks & Caicos, Ukraine and Venezuela.
Before flying an airline from one of those countries, check it out carefully using the IATA list and other public resources.
Some private security companies that offer travel services to corporations provide their own lists to clients of troubled airlines to avoid.
Air Security International LP has a database of 250 airlines world-wide, with about 15 classified as "inadequate" for safety, says Charlie LeBlanc, vice president of operations.
About 40 carriers are labeled "questionable."
Air Security, based in Houston, believes there's a correlation between an airline's finances and the level of safety for its passengers.
The firm also looks at security issues, from passenger screening to the likelihood of hijacking or terrorism events in different countries.
But it won't make its list public -- the database is open only to corporate clients.
But employees of many big companies can get access to the list through their corporate-travel departments.
There are other resources available to the public.
The Aviation Safety Network has a database of crashes sorted by airline, so if you want to see what kind of record the airline your travel agent just booked has, look it up at http://aviation-safety.net/database/operator/.
The listing is sorted by country, then by airline.
A Web site called Plane Crash Info has similar information at www.planecrashinfo.com/airlines.htm.
It's alphabetical, except that Aeroflot has its own heading.
The Russian carrier has had 152 crashes since 1946, according to the Web site, but none since 1995.
Boo Boo Kiss–It–Better Designer Band–Aids
George Bernanos, author of the magnificent "Diary of a Country Priest," told André Malraux that he had learned one important thing from a lifetime of taking deathbed confessions: "There is no such thing as an adult."
So stop pretending and admit that when mom kissed your boo boo it always felt better.
Well, guess what?
Mom's not here but if you think real, real hard maybe when you apply one of these Boo Boo Kiss–It–Better Band–Aids your cut will be less painful.
$4.95 for a box of 15 lip–shaped Band–aids, each measuring 2.25" x 1," in the four assorted colors above.
Bonus: Free toy in every box.