Fatty Arbuckle’s was one of the largest casual dining chains in Britain during the 1990s.
The first Fatty Arbuckle’s outlet was opened in Plymouth in 1983. The restaurant was co-owned by Liverpool-born friends Pete Shotton (1941 – 2017) and Bill Turner (died 1993). Shotton had been a member of the Quarrymen alongside John Lennon (1940 – 1980).
The restaurant was modelled on American diners, and had a retro Hollywood theme. It was named after Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of America’s most successful silent film actors in the 1910s. There was a focus on large portions served on 13-inch plates.
A second restaurant was opened in Bournemouth in 1985. After Shotton and Turner met Adrian Lee and his wife, they offered them the job of running the Bournemouth outlet. Within three years, Lee was managing director of Arbuckle’s.
Bill Turner died in 1993, and Pete Shotton acquired his stake in the business.
Each new Arbuckle’s outlet proved an immediate success. Franchise outlets were opened from 1991, which allowed the chain to rapidly expand to 22 restaurants by 1995. Arbuckle’s was the largest American-style restaurant chain in the UK by 1997, with 42 outlets.
Arbuckle’s, with its focus on beefburgers and steaks, was hit hard when a BSE-epidemic struck Britain in 1996. 70 percent of its sales had been burgers. Pete Shotton sold his majority stake in the business to the turnaround experts, Alchemy Partners, for £5 million.
Alchemy was widely credited with reviving the fortunes of Arbuckle’s. More profitable leisure park sites were pursued over high street locations, and the chain peaked with 58 restaurants by 1999. “Fatty” was dropped from the name from 2000 in order to appeal to health-conscious diners.
However, after making heavy losses, the company entered into receivership with debts of £6.8 million in July 2000. The loss-making majority of outlets were immediately closed down.
The brand and ten outlets were acquired by the Noble House Group, headed by investor Robert Breare (1953 – 2013), for a rumoured £1 million. Breare was charismatic; a hyperactive, shambolic and disorganised man, who enjoyed living the good life. He was adept at acquiring companies, but not so skilled at managing them.
The ten remaining outlets were closed down in 2006. Two former managers acquired the rights to the name and opened a revamped Arbuckle’s at Downham Market in Norfolk from 2008.
I visited the Fatty Arbuckle’s at Teesside Park around 1998. The restaurant was fairly tacky and greasy. I had a burger and the food was good enough, if unsophisticated. It was fairly pricey for what it was, but the portions were ridiculously generous.
The American-style restaurant is still represented in Britain by TGI Friday’s, Frankie & Benny’s and Chiquito (Tex-Mex), but other American-style restaurant chains such as Henry J Bean’s and Old Orleans have closed down.