Little Chef: Lost roadside restaurant chain was a ‘rare holiday treat’

Anyone of a certain age who has endured long hours on the highways will remember the joys of a Little Chef restaurant.

Maybe you were a kid sitting in the back of a hot car on a long drive to or from a family vacation. If so, the relief and excitement of knowing that you would soon be stopping by a Little Chef restaurant was indescribable.

At their peak, there were 439 small heads dotted along Britain’s motorways and trunk roads, but now, sadly, there are none left. Inspired by American roadside diners, the very first Little Chef opened in 1958 on Oxford Road in Reading and had just 11 seats.

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The 1970s saw massive expansion and growth for the restaurant chain across the UK. In and around Merseyside, small bosses appeared in Bebington, Eastham, Haydock, Knutsford, Maghull, Whiston and Burtonwood.

The restaurant chain became famous for its Olympic breakfasts, which was their full English version, as well as its Early Starter and Jubilee pancakes. Other popular options on the full menu include sirloin steak, grilled sandwiches, and even a dedicated kids’ menu with choices like crispy fish fingers and fried potatoes.

The restaurant’s classic menu is always remembered, as is its tradition of providing free newspapers to customers. In 2021, a thread appeared on social news site Reddit ask people for memories of Little Chef.

Blaw_Weary said: “It was a huge, huge treat that only happened on birthdays or when we drove south to Pontins.” Dpr60 said they went to Little Chef to “marvel at the carpet” and worship the breakfast, adding, “It was a temple of glorious frying, especially when you’re hungover.”

The Little Chef’s mythical Olympic breakfast

Ellienagain also recalled: “There was one overlooking the sea halfway between my house and my grandmother’s house, so we used to stop there on the way back. I remember eating steak from gammon or American pancakes. Moments of pleasure.”

Frusciantifango said: “Yeah…I think I used to have ‘Space Chef’s Grill’ when I was a kid. I remember the fried bread was literally a slice of fried bread and I loved it.”

Oblongunreal said: “Yeah, on the way to Cornwall on vacation. Great memories.”

Small Chef restaurant in Knutsford, Cheshire.  September 9, 1990
Small Chef restaurant in Knutsford, Cheshire. September 9, 1990

While Gohugatree posted: “Rare occasions, a very special treat. Always wanted to try their cherry crepe with ice cream but never was allowed…I decided that when I grow up I’ll I would order one. But they went bankrupt before that, I was doomed to never try their cherry pancake.”

The restaurant chain’s success continued into the 1980s when its parent company acquired its only major roadside competitor, the Happy Eater. By the end of the 1990s all Happy Eater restaurants had been converted to Little Chefs and at its peak there were 439 Little Chef restaurants serving hungry motorists across the UK.

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However, in the early 2000s, the restaurant’s fortunes began to decline. Too rapid expansion and the conversion of single carriageway A-roads to dual carriageways would be partly to blame.

Compared to its peak in the 1990s, by 2005 the chain had lost nearly half of its locations. In 2007, the company went into administration and marked the closure of 41 more restaurants.

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To help secure the company’s future, the company took a gamble in 2009 and hired one of the world’s most acclaimed chefs, Heston Blumenthal, to revamp the dated menu at some of its restaurants. No more greasy breakfasts and new dishes, including beef cheeks and breakfast options such as orange blossom and strawberry yogurt.

Classic decor in a Little Chef restaurant in 2004
Classic decor in a Little Chef restaurant in 2004

Blumenthal also added a fish and chip twist by serving the dish with a small bottle containing pickled onion essence, so diners could replicate the “chippy smell”. The great chef has also surrounded himself with a team to update the decor of the restaurant, inspired by classic dinners.

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Low lampshades, rugs and curtains have been replaced with shiny floors and sophisticated chrome finishes. In 2013, the chain’s owners decided the revamped menu wasn’t popular with customers and so started bringing back the Petit Chef classics again, replacing Blumenthal’s creations on the menu – which was titled: “Goodbye beef cheeks, hello egg and fries!”

Does this bring back memories for you? Let us know in the comments section below.

However, no amount of changes to the menu or decor could save the roadside restaurant chain. In early 2017, its owners Kout Food Group sold most of its remaining 70 locations to Euro Garages which converted the restaurants into franchise partners such as Starbucks, Subway and Greggs, while other locations were sold to McDonald’s.

By the end of October 2018, all remaining Little Chef restaurants had closed and been converted into new franchises. Despite Little Chef’s demise, there’s still a lot of love for the lost roadside stop.

About Vivian J. Smith

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