The Little Chef: born in 1958, died in 2018. Gone, but not forgotten. As we get older, we grow accustomed to the passing of much-loved characters from our youth, but the death of ‘Fat Charlie’ feels like the end of an era.
In truth, I need only two hands to count the number of times I frequented a Little Chef – we were a Happy Eater family – but there was always something quite comforting about the glow of the red sign and Charlie’s cheery smile.
The first restaurant opened in Reading in 1958, inspired by the American diner concept. Only a year earlier, the first Burger Chef opened at the Little America Amusement Park in Indianapolis, and this must have played a part in Sam Alper’s move to establish something similar in the UK.
Fueled by the growth in British tourism and the rising number of car owners, the Little Chef expanded rapidly in the 70s and 80s. Owners Trust House Forte acquired the Happy Eater, and the pair retained their independent identities for a decade.
In 1996, Trust House Forte was the subject of a hostile takeover by Granada, which led to the disappearance of the Happy Eater name and the purchase of AJ’s Family Restaurants. The Little Chef hit a peak, with 435 restaurants and a value of several hundred million pounds.
Fat Charlie had become Fat Cat, but greed would soon get the better of him, sending the Little Chef into a period of terminal decline. The prices went up but the product quality went in the opposite direction, and the brand suffered irreparable damage. External factors didn’t help, such as the arrival of new fast food chains, an improved road network and more reliable cars. The appetite for extended breaks just wasn’t there.
New owners came and went, but not even Heston Blumenthal could stop the demise of the once great brand. Earlier this year, the Little Chef dished out its last free lollipop, and the backlit signs were unceremoniously pulled down.
It’s somewhat ironic that, for a restaurant chain inspired by Stateside diners, many of the Little Chef buildings are now home to one of Seattle’s most prominent exports: Starbucks. Others – like the building on the Holdingham roundabout near Sleaford – are destined to become KFCs, while some will lie empty, their future uncertain.
If the likes of Starbucks can see the potential in these roadside locations, you have to ask why so many owners failed to see the need to diversify. Travellers don’t have the time or inclination to enjoy – or possibly endure – a gammon steak followed by a Jubilee Pancake on the move. And cars can cope with holiday traffic without the need for a break to cool off.
We had a family game. Granted, it wasn’t that good, but it involved guessing the number of cars you’d see in a Little Chef car park. One, two, possibly three, if you were lucky. Pass a Starbucks, and the same car park might be full, with travellers grabbing a quick coffee, pastry and free wifi. Why didn’t the Little Chef adapt?
Yes, mourning its demise is drenched in nostalgia. Who cares that our children won’t enjoy an Early Starter or a Jubilee Pancake? After all, the promise was so much more than the reality.
Only last year, I popped into a Little Chef on the A30 to be greeted by a full-on adolescent “Can I take your order, sir?” Think ‘Krusty Burger’ for the tone of voice. When I asked for a coffee, the waiter breathed a sigh of relief and said: “Oh, that’s good, the chef’s feeling sick and we can’t offer any food.”
I also remember a time when a work colleague stopped at a Little Chef on the A35 and asked for an Olympic Breakfast without a sausage. “Sorry, sir,” came the reply, “It’s against our company policy to serve the breakfast with a sausage, so we have to serve it to you. Just leave it on your plate.” Silver service, this wasn’t.
This whimsical ode to the death of the Little Chef is encapsulated by Dominic Male in his book The Liquorice Road. He says: “Throughout this journey, the Little Chef had become our roadside home from home, always there to soothe our tired eyes and add substance or simply a place to unwind.
“Its perfect familiarity and predictability a joy, the menu that didn’t need opening, the buttered toast so perfect that it is a must with every Little Chef creation, even the pancakes and ice cream. Almost as rewarding as a hug from your mum. When you start to think of the Little Chef with this much affection, it’s time to get home.”
He’s right. The Little Chef was a sign that you were on an adventure: a trip to the seaside, a visit to the grandparents, a journey to a theme park. Our A-roads will never be the same without rotund Charles and his platter of many fried delights.
It’s just a shame he never woke up to smell the coffee. Goodbye, Fat Charlie, may you rest on a bed of fluffy pancakes surrounded by a forest of lollipops.