Monday October 17, 2016
Written by Andy Roberts
Circa 1987 a very strange commercial began to be aired on ITV, revitalising any viewer who had fallen asleep during CATS Eyes:
A startled motorist at the wheel of an XR4i (although he looks far more of a 1.6 L driver) is suddenly confronted by a succession of talking Little Chef logos at the roadside, all offering him ‘steak platter’ or ‘prawn salad’. After facing this vision straight out of an Amicus horror film our man has to take refuge in the West Meon branch of the Little Chef, for a restorative cup of tea and a jubilee pancake.
According to former manager Adrian Atkins, the latter was an extremely popular item while the most frequently ordered dish was the ‘Early Starter’ which even had its own specially designed plate. Perhaps Mr. Sierra should have chosen that instead, as he had either been working much too hard or had recently enjoyed a three-hour lunch.
By the time that advert was first screened, the Little Chef had been a part of British motoring for 29 years, the original branch being a US-style diner on Oxford Road in Reading. The first LC was aimed at those respectable motorists who had just bought their first Ford 100E Prefect or Morris Minor and who would not be seen dead in a Hell Drivers style transport cafe. Growth was initially slow – by 1968 there were still on only 25 branches across the UK but when Little Chef became part of Trust House Forte in 1970 it soon became a nationwide brand. 40 years ago there were 174 Little Chefs and to someone of my age (born 1969), a visit was to be eagerly anticipated, part of a special trip. In the words of Little Chef aficionado Alan Simpson – ‘You couldn't just walk down the high street and find one.’
In the 1970s it was not uncommon to find a birthday party being staged in the Little Chef alongside weary sales reps working out the petrol expenses for their Hillman Avengers. This may seem a strange idea to some younger readers but one that will not surprise anyone who recalls the utter grimness of a typical café of that decade. I still have bad dreams about the Southampton bus station tea room, where tramps and middle-aged teddy boy drivers all gloomily consumed doughnuts in a smog of Rothmans smoke and fumes from passing Bristol Lodekkers. Many of generation will have similar experiences and it is also often forgotten that many fast food establishments took a quite a while to arrive in the provinces. By contrast, the Little Chef offered safe and predictable surroundings, so where better than the outlet on the A32 to stage one’s ninth birthday, especially after watching The Spaceman & King Arthur at the Eastleigh Regal?
Various corporate changes have meant that there are now around only 70 Little Chefs in existence, although it would be pleasant to see a revival in their numbers. To visit any branch is to be assailed by instant nostalgia for a time when, as Alan puts it, customers might be ‘on a journey somewhere exciting as part of a holiday, on the way to visit friends and family or as part of a day out’. Plus, a free lollipop into the bargain.
With thanks to: Alan Simpson and Adrian Atkins