Monday, 22 February 2021

Dine out before they die out: LITTLE CHEF SPECIAL

When Little Chef finally ceased trading back in 2018 it was the end of an era and a rather anticlimactic ending to these Dine Out Before They Die Out posts, I had set out to visit/ dine at as many Little Chefs as I could before its fateful closure, “At least I was able to document some of them” I thought, then last month a former employee of Little Chef Adrian Atkins very kindly reached out to me. Adrian started working for Little Chef in 1979 at Sinderby as a weekender. When he left school the following year he worked at Weyhill Little Chef as a General Catering Sales Assistant then in 1981 he moved on to Little Bentley as a Supervisor, a Deputy Manager at Hornchurch in 1982 before becoming Deputy Manager and later Regional Staff Trainer at East Horndon in 1983. Having discovered a talent for teaching he decided to train as an infant school teacher and officially left LC in 1988 to train but he returned to LC during the summer vacations of 89, 90 and 91 to assist with new openings or act as a relief manager. He told me that it felt like, “A proper vocational calling and I still love it, but I also still look back on my LC days with fondness and pride” and quite rightly so!  Adrian has very kindly agreed to become my first 'Guest Blogger' and recount his time with Little Chef offering us a fascinating insight of what the chain was like between 1979 to 1991.

When I started with LC it was owned by Trusthouse Forte, one of the biggest hotel and catering companies in the world at that time. There were nearly 200 branches at that time and as part of THF it meant they had access to excellent head office facilities, estates and maintenance teams and THF's own food supply company (Puritan Maid) which manufactured foods specially for LC use only.  The sites at that time were well looked after and attractive. The menu was relatively simple as the only cooking equipment was griddles, fryers and a bain marie. The typical menu of this time consisted of 3 starters, 3 breakfasts, a range of grills and steaks, a range of burgers, the famous LC pancakes and a few other deserts such as cakes and ice creams. 2 of LC's unique selling points at this time were the fact that all food was cooked in full view of the customers and they were the only chain to have a dedicated children's menu. Opening hours were then 8am til 8pm but these were extended in 1981 to 7-9 and then in 1982 to 7-10 with some sites operating 6 - midnight. A typical site would be staffed by a Manager, Deputy Manager, Supervisor and a team of General Catering Sales Assistants. Smaller sites sometimes didn't need a supervisor whereas larger sites often had two supervisors.

TRAINING - Management were trained at regional training centres but GCSA's were trained at their own site. The training was of an extremely high standard and consisted of a six week induction covering health and safety, food hygiene, customer service, kitchen prep, beverage service and griddle cooking. As more new sites opened over the next decade opportunities for career progression were plentiful.

REGIONAL MANAGERS - LC had a deliberate policy of making sure each RM had no more than 10 sites as this allowed them to get into every site on a weekly basis and to build up a really personal relationship with all the staff. The main duties of RM's were to set the sales targets for each site, to set the wage budgets, to carry out monthly housekeeping checks and to undertake yearly appraisals for all members of the management team at each site. They also organised fantastic social events in each region and sometimes ran competitions where it was possible to win great prizes such as a car or a holiday!!! All the benefits of belonging to such a great parent company.

1985 - This was probably the most exciting year to be part of the LC story as so many great things happened. Firstly every single site had a complete makeover and refurbishment with a great new look and really smart new staff uniforms. Part of the refurbishment was the installation of the Merrychef ovens which allowed for a much more varied menu to be offered. Then we launched LC Lodge with the first four lodges opening in this year. Next came the purchase of Happy Eater which THF decided to still continue running under that name but brought in the same sort of standards that LC had and put the HE sites under the command of existing LC regional managers. The purchase of HE also included four motorway service areas known as Welcome Break. As THF already had a chain of service areas and they liked the name Welcome Break, they extended it across their whole estate so that the former name of Motor Chef was dropped. This also saw all of the service areas undergo a complete refurbishment. THF had also just been offered the chance to buy the small chain of Kelly's Kitchen roadside restaurants which had been operated by Petrofina who had built them alongside their petrol stations. These sites all had an identical design of red brick cottage style with a large funnel type chimney. Because this chain was so small and THF was already running two major roadside brands it was decided to convert all of them into LC's.

STAFF TRAINERS - Until 1983 all training was under the supervision of a Regional Training Officer but as the number of sites grew it became unworkable. This was when regional staff trainers were introduced who were responsible for all training in 10 sites close to their own base site. To become a staff trainer I had to undergo an extensive training course which was endorsed by the Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board, produce some new training materials and be observed carrying out training. Only when I had successfully done all this was I awarded my certificate and badge.

1991 - In this year Trusthouse Forte decided to slim down it's business which included a massive 22 companies including sports shops, a cruise line and lots of other diverse stuff. They now slimmed down to just their hotels and restaurants. The name was also simplified to just Forte with a brand new logo. The Forte name preceded other brands in all signage and promotional material so that Travelodge became Forte Travelodge and Posthouse became Forte Posthouse, etc. The effect of this on LC was that the old roadside division consisting of Welcome Break, Happy Eater and Little Chef was now disbanded and these three brands joined Harvester and Wheelers to become Forte Restaurants. All of these restaurants then displayed a large plaque inside the restaurants with this branding and any new sites built after this got the Forte Restaurants branding on external signage too.





COFFEE STOP
- LC regularly conducted nationwide customer surveys to see what modern travellers wanted. Over the years this had led to longer opening hours, many menu changes, complimentary newspapers, bigger retail selection of goods, baby change facilities and the launch of LC Lodge (later renamed Travelodge). It was one of these customer surveys that resulted in the launch of Coffee Stop. These were small counter service units built on to existing LC's to offer an alternative to the table service model. Around this time LC Express was also launched offering a takeaway service.

GRANADA TAKEOVER AND THE SAD END - I have never ceased to be amazed at why Granada wanted to get their hands on Forte and the way in which they launched such an aggressive takeover bid. To my mind the rot set in as soon as they took over. With LC in particular they made several huge mistakes. The first thing they did was to do away with Coffee Stop and replace those units with Burger King. Utterly ridiculous as the coffee market was just starting to really grow then (look at Costa's success) and anyway, LC already offered a good range of burgers. Granada also immediately did away with the Happy Eater Brand and converted all those sites to LC. They also converted their own smaller chain of roadside restaurants (AJ's) to LC and opened up LC's in their motorway services. All Of this was done hastily and in many cases just consisted of a change of external signage, uniforms and menu. This meant that the national look of LC was really watered down and the traveller felt there was no choice anymore on the roadside. Add to this a massive hike in prices and the number of RM's cut so that each one now had 40-50 sites and the whole brand started to fall apart. Five years later Granada offloaded LC to Compass and then in the next 18 years LC went through another six owners, all of whom stripped assets, failed to invest, closed sites, etc. And the rest is history sadly.











A great, big THANK YOU to Adrian for getting in touch and sharing his time with Little Chef with us, not only offering an interesting glimpse into a now sadly defunct and much missed part of British life but for offering a fresh way of allowing us to preserve and share the memories of these welcome breaks on this site. If you worked for Little Chef and would like to share your memories please get in touch.


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©Arfon Jones 2021. All images are copyrighted throughout the world.

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