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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.''

November 10, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I absolutely adore LC.I always guzzle and chomp down the Olympic breakfasts.Absolutely Splendid grub.

Posted by: Martayus Taylor- Bradders | Mar 23, 2007 12:15:21 PM

I love Little Chef restaurants and like the Happy Eater brand - which I would love to see return, wish it was doing better. I'd love to see the LC brand be big again so they can re-open some of the restaurants they closed - two of which - and they were great - were near me.

Nowadays, my "nearest" Little Chef is a complete shambles in comparison - they're usually short of staff and the staff they do have just don't care, which annoys me. They've taken away the free lollipops, removed the branded plates and cups, etc and changed the menu around - why?

While I've always found the restaurants to be clean, etc - like Claire said, I also find some of the staff aren't as enthusiastic as her - unfortunately. I just hope things will improve and the company will be able to grow again.

Posted by: Mac | Oct 28, 2006 6:12:36 AM

Little Chef was a great company under Forte. It faired well under Granada but a constant round of cutbacks in area staff and a complete movement away from quality and service has left it old and tired. It used to be huge with motorway sites and travelodges and even the posthouse hotels - forte were big. We had our own food delivery company and decent benefits and decent management. All gone now because nobody has wanted to invest and take pride in it for years...I enjoyed my time working in this company and remember many good times and good people but times change and this business will inevitably change.. good luck Little chef!

Posted by: stu | Sep 25, 2006 11:57:55 AM

I worked at 5 different Little Chefs in the 1980's when it was owned by the great Trusthouse Forte. It was a great place to work and was extremely popular amongst motorists. Let's hope the new owners get it back on top again.

Posted by: Adrian | Sep 20, 2006 9:50:27 AM

i currently work for little chef and have to say that its not as bad as ur all making it sound i would jus like to say that if u came into the little chef restuarant that i work for u would find that the food is not rubbery ... the menu is upto date and the cleaning is also up to date ! It's had bad times but i think u will all find there has been a lot of improvement not only that the prices have come down new menus added and its been taken over by a diff company !

Posted by: Claire | Aug 7, 2006 1:30:47 PM

Having visted England many times I have found little chef comparable to some great American Chains and if I had the cash I would buy the little chef company outright. There is nothing better than to be crusing the roads in Scotland and happen upon a lc and eat a great meal
what would would motorists do without such a reliable source of food while on the road
Joel Wirth a concerned Californian

Posted by: Joel Wirth | Jul 29, 2006 3:02:13 PM

Hey - you make it sound like Black Pudding is some evil creation of Little Chef. Their black pudding is horrible, but so is all their food. Proper black pudding is the food of the gods. Honest.

Posted by: mike | Nov 11, 2005 11:52:59 AM

Hey, hold on a minute, it wasn't always this bad...Working at Little Chef got me through college in the mid '70's. In those days it was a good, well-run organisation under Sir Charles Forte. Barring the odd punch-up amongst the patrons, Little Chef was a very pleasant roadside stop and of value to the local community for employment and as a meeting place.

Posted by: AW | Nov 10, 2005 9:52:15 PM

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