Little Chef is nearly dead and it’s because Britain doesn’t care about its service stations

Cooked Up

Goodnight, sweet prince

7th December 2017

The A470 runs between Cardiff, up north through the Brecon Beacons, finishing at Llandudno on the north coast. It is a thoroughfare for the whole of Wales, spectacular in many ways, serving holidaymakers, truck drivers, and commuters alike. For me, it’s finest landmark is right at its heart, in the town of Builth Wells — a Little Chef, one of the last 42 still in operation.

Little Chef’s demise hits me a little personally. Growing up in Builth, going to the Little Chef was very much a treat — it was a place between my house and my Gran’s house where she and my Mum would meet when my older brother was a baby, and latterly, a place we’d all go after a good parents evening. The odd smell of the smoking area, the day-glo orange of the free lollipops, the lemony-fresh hand sanitisers that came with the dunkin’ donuts. Whenever we saw another Little Chef on the road, it was a nice reminder of home. Euro Garages Ltd bought the ailing franchise in February of 2017 and began the process of repurposing its existing sites under their other brand names — for the most part, Starbucks and Greggs. That number of 42 Little Chefs is likely to continue to fall, with the result being that soon, Britain’s service stations won’t look much different to Britain’s high streets.

Roads are rhapsodised in America for example, a whole movie genre dedicated to what they represent, pit-stopped with iconic, gleaming diners

The anonymity of service stations plays into how the UK feels about domestic travel in general. The romance of the road never really made it to these shores. Where roads are rhapsodised in America for example, a whole movie genre dedicated to what they represent, pit-stopped with iconic, gleaming diners, here the associations are almost the opposite: congested commutes and two-chevrons-apart and a sense of being in an odd geographical hinterland. The fact that Little Chef, has been slowly dying for the past decade or more, only adds to the gloom — like a piece of roadkill nobody’s really sure what to do with.  

Other countries differ to us in this regard, the food at their service stations treated with reverence. In France, the nation’s biggest retailer of Bresse Chicken, an incredibly desirable and quite expensive breed in the UK, is the Le Poulet de Bresse services between Dijon and Bourg-en-Bresse. American diners, the model upon which Little Chefs were based, are almost folkloric — long gleaming countertops and regional specials made affordable with minimal fuss. In fact, drive through Italy, Spain, Germany, any number of countries, and you’ll likely find good food on the roadside, with a sense of locality and progeny, that isn’t branded up as trendy or faddish.

When signs of trouble first emerged in the mid-noughties, it was Little Chef’s reputation as not being healthy that was said to be the reason for customers turning away — Matthew Fort writing in The Guardian in 2006 talks about how the menu hasn’t changed with the national diet, how the restaurants are a throwback to a time when “obesity was but a dimple on the waistline of the consumer”. However, this doesn’t really add up. There hasn’t been a huge shift towards gourmet eating en mass. If there has been a food revolution in Britain, then it’s not been overwhelmingly health conscious. Pulled pork and gourmet burgers are not known for their life-giving properties.

When customers accuse Heston’s new ideas of being “poncey”, it’s played as if to embarrass them, rather than embarrass the professional chef and restaurateur who’s so obviously misjudged his target market by putting Lapsang Souchong Smoked Salmon on the menu of what’s essentially a greasy spoon

What’s possibly more of a contributing factor is to do with what kind of clientele Little Chef has historically catered for, and how they’ve been treated. In 2009, Channel 4 broadcast Big Chef Takes On Little Chef, a documentary in which Michelin-starred celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal is brought in to save the chain, one of the first problems he sees with the chain is the confusing nature of its menu — specifically he notes how it picks dishes from across the world, rather than anything discernibly British. He describes it as feeling like a company “in panic”, and while again, that’s true, it’s also the mark of a company looking to level up, to attract a new, bougier customer, who may be inclined to order a Tuna Nicoise over an Olympic Feast. In the documentary when customers accuse Heston’s new ideas of being “poncey”, it’s played as if to embarrass them, rather than embarrass the professional chef and restaurateur who’s so obviously misjudged his target market by putting Lapsang Souchong Smoked Salmon on the menu of what’s essentially a greasy spoon. In hindsight, the whole thing looks like an ill-advised PR stunt, rather than a scaled up Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, although Little Chef chief Ian Pegler is likely as much to blame as that, spending most of the documentary just saying to Heston he wants “blue sky thinking” without actually giving him any information on important stuff, like, how the business is run.

After years of circling the drain, the plug had almost certainly been pulled

There are some moves in place to try and combat the cookie-cutter nature of service stations. Earlier this year transport minister John Hayes created a taskforce specifically to upgrade the design and landscape of new and existing stop-off spots, citing the need to attract drivers to stop off in order to combat fatigue, which causes 10% of road fatalities each year. He also mentions food, and a desire to offer alternatives to the standard chains you see at every station: “It is my firm belief that motorway service areas should support local independent businesses, source locally produced food and be lovely places to enjoy. Beauty at every turn, every stop.” Starbucks, and other Euro Garages brands, for all its ubiquity, is still acceptably middle class enough to fit into this vision — one only need look at the conflation between being posh and drinking lattes politicians often make to understand that.

It’s hard to see how Little Chef would fit into this gussying up. After years of circling the drain, the plug had almost certainly been pulled. Its inability to win over, or maybe its failure to properly court, the middle class, was ultimately its undoing. When it eventually does go, it will likely be mourned as a piece of British kitsch, and emblem of what once was, rather than as a place of culinary excellence. For me, its death will change the landscape of my hometown, where it served a purpose beyond purely convenience.

7th December 2017