Little Chefs: What happened to roadside diner chain

By Jon Douglas,Producer, Radio 4’s Toast podcast
Alamy Inside a Little ChefAlamy
Little Chefs across the country were identifiable by their bright colours both inside and out

With 439 restaurants on major routes across the UK, Little Chef once enjoyed a near monopoly on roadside dining. So, why did the restaurant chain disappear?

Many of us have fond memories of childhood visits to a Little Chef.

Lawrence Wosskow from Sheffield remembers the free sweets.

“We always got a lollipop when we were there,” he says, recalling family visits en route to Bournemouth for his summer holidays.

“We always used to look forward to going. When you saw a Little Chef, you knew it was going to be good.”

Lawrence took his love for Little Chef into adulthood, growing up to become a successful entrepreneur who ended up buying the restaurant chain.

He was one of many Little Chef owners during its 60-year history.

Lawrence Wosskow Lawrence WosskowLawrence Wosskow
Lawrence Wosskow outside a Little Chef restaurant in Cirencester

Little Chef was started in 1958 by catering boss Peter Merchant and caravan manufacturer Sam Alper.

The pair had witnessed the popularity of roadside diners on business trips to the United States and decided to bring their own version to the UK.

Car ownership was growing and the UK’s road network was expanding.

Sam Alper’s widow, Fiona, believes her husband spotted an opportunity.

“I suspect Sam had that vision that all these people and their cars would need somewhere to stop and have a decent, affordable meal”.

PA Media The famous Little Chef 'Olympic Breakfast' on a plate with knife and forkPA Media
The famous Little Chef ‘Olympic Breakfast’

Merchent and Alper opened their first Little Chef in Reading, Berkshire, in a tiny, pre-fabricated building with seats for just 11 customers.

Around a decade later, the company was bought by Trust Houses Ltd, which later became known as Trusthouse Forte after merging with Charles Forte’s hotel and catering business.

Little Chef, famous for its Olympic Breakfasts and cherry-sauced filled Jubilee Pancakes, went from strength to strength, and budget hotels known as ‘Little Chef Lodges’ were built next to some of the restaurants.

Fiona Alper Fiona and Sam AlperFiona Alper
Fiona Alper pictured with her husband – the Little Chef co-founder, Sam Alper.

Later they were rebranded as ‘Travelodges’ after the American motel brand which Charles Forte had also bought.

In 1996, media conglomerate, Granada, acquired Trusthouse Forte and began opening Little Chef branches at its motorway service stations.

Restaurant numbers peaked at 439.

The business’ decline was “gradual” according to Becky Parr-Phillips who started working for Little Chef as a waitress in the 1990s, rising through the managerial ranks to become head of operations around 15 years later.

The owners were keen to reduce costs and maximise profits as the chain still enjoyed something of a monopoly on roadside dining.

“There were closures, the prices were hiked, you know the guests did start to call it Little Thief rather than Little Chef”, says Becky.

The restaurant chain’s owners, Granada, had merged with Compass Group before selling the Little Chef and Travelodge businesses to the private equity firm, Permira.

By the time Lawrence Wosskow bought Little Chef from Permira in 2005, there were 234 restaurants left and he says many of them were in need of refurbishment.

He and his business partner, Simon Heath, sold the restaurant buildings and leased them back from their new owners raising millions of pounds to improve them.

Customers were no longer as keen to stop for a sit-down meal, so dozens of coffee and sandwich outlets were added to Little Chef restaurants.

They aimed to capture people on the go, along with Burger King outlets that were already operating under franchise inside some Little Chef branches.

Phil Coomes/BBC Closed Little Chef at Wansford on the A1Phil Coomes/BBC
Two decades on from Little Chef’s peak, many of its outlets had shut down

Lawrence says the sale and leaseback deal was “absolutely the right thing to do” and that price cuts also helped to bring customers back.

But he says bad weather during the peak summer trading period in 2006 hit sales and he had a heart attack which almost killed him.

Doctors told him to avoid “any stressful situation” meaning he had to step back from the business.

He describes it as “one of the toughest periods” of his life.

Little Chef went bust, entering administration less than 18 months after Lawrence Wosskow had bought it.

The turnaround specialists, Rcapital, led a rescue bid and became Little Chef’s new owners.

They brought in celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal to revamp the menu as part of a Channel 4 documentary.

Blumenthal’s new menu was acclaimed by restaurant critics but was only ever introduced at a handful of Little Chefs.

Rcapital refurbished restaurants while closing others, selling the business for a £6m profit to the Kuwaiti company, Kout Food Group (KFG), in 2013.

By then, there were 78 restaurants left.

Becky Parr-Phillips who was head of operations under KFG says they were “really passionate” about turning the brand around and did start to invest although “potentially a little too late”.

By then, she says, consumer habits had changed and there was a lot more competition from petrol station forecourts which were offering a much improved range of hot drinks and food.

Peter Harden, the editor and director of Harden’s restaurant guide says the “secret sauce” of hospitality is good service as well as having a good food offering.

“The whole ethos was a slightly dated one and I think with those sorts of heritage brands, you still need to find ways of keeping them fresh and relevant.

“They just didn’t manage to refresh their offering enough at the same time as keeping their workforce focused on making people feel valued,” he says.

In 2017, KFG retained the Little Chef name but sold its remaining restaurant buildings to Euro Garages for an undisclosed sum.

Euro Garages wanted the buildings to expand their franchise operation with well-known brands like Greggs and Starbucks.

Around a year after the sale, Little Chef restaurants had all quietly disappeared from the UK’s road network, replaced with more modern, on-the-go food outlets.

Ultimately it had failed to remain relevant to enough customers to survive in the face of new competition.

Could Little Chef have been saved?

Lawrence Wosskow thinks so, but he believes it needed fewer restaurants and much more money spent on refurbishing them and marketing the business.

Becky Parr-Phillips looks back fondly on the years she spent working at Little Chef, but in the end concludes sadly “it just wasn’t quite offering what people were after”.

Toast is the BBC Radio 4 series which examines brands that reached dizzy heights only to end up…toast. You can listen to the Little Chef episode here and catch up with all of the other episodes on BBC Sounds.


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