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15/04/2013 09:15

Little Chef: the restaurants time forgot

As Little Chef is put up for sale, our writer wonders if the restaurants' time is up


Little Chef has been put up for sale (© Rex Features)

Roadside restaurant chain Little Chef - for decades a symbol of a more British type of fast food - has been put up for sale again. The weekend's news hardly surprised me: my last few visits to a Little Chef have left me with a big sense of disappointment.

This is a food outlet which has been left in the slow lane for too long. It's a dining experience left lurking in the 1970s and it's small wonder the owner, investment company R Capital, is calling for the bill, patting its pockets and about to leave. Presumably grabbing a free lollipop on the way out.

The Sunday Times reports that service station operators, such as Welcome Break and Moto, are likely to bid for Little Chef, which was bought by R Capital from administrators in 2007 and now employs 1100 staff. Other potential bidders include Starbucks and Costa Coffee.

Does this mean that Little Chef is destined to become just another bland corporate food chain? Urgent action is required if they are to rescue Little Chef from its yesteryear focus. This is a company in dire need of modernisation. 

I've visited two of the chain's 83 restaurants recently. One, on the A34 in Oxfordshire, claimed they never stocked fresh fruit when we asked if a poorly child could eat a simple banana or apple for their pudding. The food has failed to keep up with changing customer demands - we don't all want to eat an Olympic Breakfast seven days a week.

The other Little Chef I visited - in Northamptonshire - suffered the same beige design which could have come straight out of a 1970s BBC sitcom. Sludgy carpets, cracked Formica tableware and staff with somewhat less charisma than the smiling company mascot, Fat Charlie, left me deeply underwhelmed.

The new owners should seek inspiration from what Heston Blumenthal tried to do in 2009. He was brought in in 2009 to try and effect a makeover, and the resulting Channel 4 documentary showed some interesting battles between the board and the celebrity chef.

But it'll take more than a TV chef to turn around Little Chef. Blumenthal's spirit of modernisation was correct, but the fleeting attention of a super-star is not enough to fix a very deep-rooted problem.

Little Chef opened its first restaurant in Reading in 1958 and at its peak in the 1980s operated more than 230 branches. But rival fast-food outlets such as McDonald's have nibbled away at that success. The new owners must undertake a root-and-branch review of what roadside diners want in 2013. If they don't, I worry it might be last orders for this very British brand.

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