Thursday December 8, 2016
Written by Andy Roberts
If in my memory, at any rate, the Little Chefs seems to belong to a 1970s of Hillman Avenger Supers and educational trips to the Marchwood Power Station, then I associated the Happy Eater more with the 1980s.
Whenever I think of Vauxhall Cavalier SRis, Austin Montego HLs or C.A.T.S Eyes on TVS, I also think of those roadside diners with a décor apparently inspired by the citrus flavoured Opal Fruits and often with an alarming-looking weather vane on the roof. As if to prove the chain’s up to the minute credentials, there was even a Happy Eater video game, and for weary parents, the branches offered the bonus of rather elaborate children’s playgrounds.
Happy Eaters were established in 1973, and by 1986 when the company was sold to Trust House Forte, there were 75 outlets, nearly all based on the A1 and the main roads of the Midlands and South East of England. It is a slight myth that everyone in the 1980s did most of their travelling via motorways as for many families, this was still a time of seemingly endless journeys on trunk roads. A Sunday afternoon trip could, and often did, involve traffic lights, delays and rows over whether the cassette player should be occupied by Wham’s Music from the Edge of Heaven or The Best of Shane Fenton & The Fentones. After 100 miles of such torment, often in the cold and drizzle, the sight of what looked like a large red Pacman was almost always welcome to any driver.
As with any ambitious organisation, there were various publicity gimmicks, from the badges handed to young patrons to the ‘Happy Eater 850cc Mini Team’ that competed at Goodwood. In 1986 the BBC even interviewed the staff of a Surrey branch for their Doomsday project, which was to preserve memories of everyday life for future generations - =. To read about how travellers might spend an average of £3 per meal on such delights as ‘Real American Hamburgers-pure ground beef, griddled to order, in a sesame seed bun with chips’ or ‘Banger brunch-3 sausages, fried egg and chips’ is to be made to feel rather old.
As with its principal rival, what the Happy Eater offered its patrons was the assurance that each and every branch would offer the same menu of comfort food. It is sometimes easy to mock such establishments, but thirty years ago, the alternatives might be a grim prefabricated transport café and after two hours trapped in a Datsun Stanza with only Radio Solent for company, who would not crave ‘hot pancakes with choice of lemon, jam or maple syrup’ (75p)?
1995 saw the Happy Eaters acquired by the Granada Group, and two years later the last branches were converted into Little Chefs. The famous logo, which was once the subject of a very witty Ben Elton monologue, no longer tempted (or alarmed) the nation’s motorists but by then the Happy Eater had already made its mark in Britain’s political history. In February 1991, a black Daimler pulled up into the car park of the Doncaster branch, as John Major craved the all-day breakfast before addressing a conference in Scarborough.
Naturally, the then Prime Minister also requested HP sauce, the better to prepare for his demanding schedule and planning the new Cones’ Hotline. Breakfast was probably the wisest choice of dish – in 1995 The Independent found that ‘The sausage is honest and herb-free, the toast is piping hot, and the baked beans taste like they come from a can whose label one would recognise’. The Happy Eater had zero pretensions to haute cuisine and the orange, and yellow livery could induce mild hallucinations after just 20 minutes, but at its best, it was the Ford Sierra 1.6 GL of eateries – honest, unpretentious, and fulfilling the description on the label.
Images kindly provided with permission from http://www.stylingandsalvage.com