Thursday February 1, 2018
As I write this piece, there are a number of online reports that the once-familiar sight on our roads is going the way of the RAC telephone box, the AA salute and police Wolseleys with bells - the Little Chef (LC). To be frank, its decline has been a sad protracted affair, in contrast to the heyday of the LC when a visit to the red and white liveried café was eagerly anticipated. Younger readers may find this claim very hard to believe but it should be remembered that although MacDonalds first came to the UK in 1974 even by the early 1980s they were seen as vaguely exotic in parts of the country. At that time, you were more likely to encounter a LC, which had the advantages of looking vaguely American and having an agreeably predictable menu – plus the chance of a free lollipop on your departure.
Another factor that should be bourn in mind is that the LC was open on a Sunday, and in the days prior to the change in the trading laws this was a considerable sales tool. For the weekend driver out on a jaunt in his/her Vauxhall Chevette GL, the alternatives to the LC might be a surviving transport café which may have been cheaper but still populated by ageing rockers a la the gang in the George and Mildred film. But you knew where you stood with a LC, from the Olympic Breakfast to the Jubilee Pancake.
The first LC opened in 1958 in the same year as Britain’s first motorway, but they were always more associated with the country’s network of major roads. My earliest experiences of LC are associated with journeys along the A32, the A303 and the A31 in the summer heat of 1976 and how exciting the menu appeared. Admittedly, my idea of what constituted culinary sophistication were fairly limited at that time but a visit to the LC was the often the highlight of a day out.
And this only made my last visit to an LC rather sad. In 2017, I was attracted by the Fat Charlie logo only to find an eatery with the atmosphere of an abandoned cinema and where I was quite convinced that the staff had been kidnapped by Doctor Who style aliens. I am not saying that it was the worst café I had encountered – that honour goes to a now-closed venue in Oxfordshire with ant catchers on the floor and a welcome as warm as a deep freezer – but it was running a close second.
At the present time, there is considerable speculation as to the future of the Little Chef. Their ranks have been in steep decline for a number of years, for the brand was established at a time when Starbucks, Burger King and KFC were unknown in the UK – and when ‘beef burgers’ were seen as boldly trans-Atlantic. My own favourite image was on a break on a school trip to London circa 1980, the A303 branch smelling of Rothmans and pancake syrup, and with some of the older students loudly singing Baggy Trousers to the marked annoyance of the other patrons. Memories…