Friday December 7, 2018
My recent celebration of the Little Chef had prompted me to return to its fiercest rival, for you cannot think of dining on the move during the 1970s and 1980s without also thinking of the Happy Eater. Both chains had a similar format – eateries that once flourished on the A-roads of Britain – and they both hailed from the pre-fast food era.
The first Wimpy bar opened in 1954, four years before the original Little Chef diner but that was a largely urban entity while a LC was almost always found away from towns and cities. McDonald’s established its UK operations in 1974, one year after the first Happy Eater but the two roadside cafes continued to provide service that would have been familiar to any Hillman Minx owner who once patronised the Lyon’s Corner House.
The Happy Eater was never quite as commonly encountered as the LC and its image was slightly more upmarket and a tad more contemporary; once seen, that red and orange logo could never be forgotten. They boasted children’s playgrounds, which the LCs did lack and push-button cruets that to some (all right, me), were the height of technology when visiting the A303 (North) branch.
I remember, 45 years ago, watching The Goodies on BBC2 was seen as dangerously radical in some parts of the Hampshire. By the mid-1970s the HE had even introduced no-smoking areas - for readers of a certain age, memories of eating out during that decade will almost always include clouds of Rothman fumes to accompany the Black Forest Gateau.
The Happy Eater chain had reached 90 outlets by 1988, and a recruitment advertisement from 1987 gives an idea of working conditions in the HE. The Colwyn Bay branch was looking to recruit a ‘manager/manageress’; the applicant had to be aged between 22 and 35, the salary was £8,500 per year, and the benefits included ‘meals on duty’, ‘uniform’ and ‘self-contained flat (if required)’.
However, 1987 was also the year that HE was acquired by Trust House Forte, the parent company of Little Chef, and by the 1990s it was increasingly apparent that the two brands could not co-exist.
The last Happy Eater was sighted 21 years ago, and today they are as much a memory as the Golden Egg, Pizzaland and other long-lost dining chains. This review of their breakfast from The Independent in 1995 is a reminder of why they are missed by quite a few Britons:
“And so to the Happy Eater. There is something deeply reassuring about this place with its garish children's monstrosity of a climbing-frame out front, the piped carols and the waitress in her green nylon uniform and Nikes, who confines herself to a functional: "Yes, please?" There is also, by this stage, nothing I want less than a full fried breakfast. But for £4.99, a steaming plate appears, and the mushrooms are a triumph. 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 reviewer concluded that ‘The Happy Eater breakfast has a sublime integrity’ – to which I would merely add the cruets were rather good too.