All posts by T Farrell

Cadbury Dairy Milk

Cadbury Dairy Milk

Cadbury is the second highest selling confectionery brand in the world after Wrigley’s chewing gum. Similar to the Coca-Cola Company, much of Cadbury’s success has been driven by a single product, the Dairy Milk bar. When someone says Cadbury, you instantly think of Dairy Milk, it’s purple packaging, and the famous “glass of milk and a half” slogan.

The Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bar was introduced in 1905. Developed by George Cadbury Jr, it was the first milk chocolate bar to be mass produced in the UK. By 1914, it was the highest selling Cadbury line. The economies of mass production combined with rising incomes meant that the working classes could afford chocolate for the first time.

However, other manufacturers such as Fry and Rowntree soon caught up with Cadbury’s mass production methods. So why were none of their own product lines as successful as Dairy Milk? There is first mover advantage, yet it took seventy years for a product to seriously challenge Dairy Milk in the UK market. The Rowntree Yorkie bar made inroads in the 1970s, but has since faded somewhat. The Mars Bar built market share throughout the 1970 and 80s, largely because it retailed for half the price of Dairy Milk, so it was hardly battling on equal terms.

Why has Dairy Milk been so successful? There are two consistent brand selling points: Quality/Healthfulness and Luxury.

The brand has always been advertised as affordable luxury. Purple has been the dominant colour in the packaging since 1920. When you see purple on the shelf of the supermarket, you can be almost certain that it’s a Cadbury product. Purple reinforces the brand image: purple is regal and elegant and represents luxury. By dressing their product in purple regalia, Cadbury are expressing their confidence in the quality of their product. The packaging implies “Fit for Kings”, without the arrogance of explicitly saying so.

There is also an implicit ego boost associated with consuming a product that is “fit for royalty”. “You are good enough to consume this regal product”. The brand is egalitarian, which ties into the egalitarian nature of the Quakers, of which the Cadbury family were members.

This ties in with the original context of the product, which was offering the once luxury product, only affordable for the few, to the masses.

The luxury connotations of Dairy Milk reinforce the notion of a chocolate bar as a form of self-treating. The idea of chocolate as a reward, which is a powerful one, as consuming chocolate triggers the release of endorphins into the brain, which are the body’s “reward mechanisms”.

Since 1928, the product has been represented by the famous slogan, “A glass and a half”. This refers to the amount of milk (426ml) that a half pound (227g) bar of Dairy Milk contains. The slogan represents quality: no other competitor claims to contain as much milk, and milk is a simple, pure, quality ingredient.

Milk also suggests a certain amount of healthfulness. Milk grows bones and is/was given to schoolchildren. Milk is also a natural product, which counteracts the natural suspicions the individual may have regarding processed food.

Meanwhile, the name “Dairy” conjures up wholesome, rural imagery. The countryside has healthy and natural connotations. Interestingly, the second most successful Cadbury product after Dairy Milk is the Creme Egg, which also uses the double “dairy” imagery.

Dairy Milk line extensions continue to reinforce this image. To the modern consumer, “Fruit and Nut” and “Whole Nut” sound more like health bars or healthy cereals than high calorie confections. Again, fruits and nuts are products with healthy and natural connotations that professionals are always recommending we eat more of.

This healthfulness connotations help to allay the individual’s principal reason for not buying chocolate: it’s not good for you as it has a high sugar and fat content.

Bouncing back: Dunlop Slazenger

The Dunlop and Slazenger brands remain prominent in sporting goods, especially in racket sports such as tennis, squash, golf, badminton, hockey and cricket.

Dunlop was established as a rubber goods company in 1889. In 1909, it moved into sporting goods when it began to manufacture twelve dozen golf balls a day at Manor Mill in Birmingham. In their first year, Dunlop balls won five of the major British golf tournaments.

From 1924 the company branched out into tennis balls, and from 1925, tennis rackets. The decade saw Dunlop established as a leading sporting goods supplier due to a mechanised production line, which reduced costs, as well as a strong commitment to research and development. It was considered the foremost manufacturer of golf balls.

Production of the golf balls was temporarily discontinued in 1941 due to war work and a lack of rubber supply. After the war, Dunlop transferred production to Speke, Liverpool, where it had leased a former aircraft factory.

Dunlop’s Fort Maxply tennis rackets were used by more than half of the competitors at Wimbledon in 1952.

Slazenger, a major English sporting goods rival, was acquired in 1959.

Dunlop Sport exports amounted to £1.6 million in 1960. The business was a world leader in golf and tennis.

Dunlop and Slazenger ranked alongside Wilson and Spalding as the leading manufacturers of quality tennis rackets.

Astronaut Alan Shepard used a Dunlop 65 ball when he played golf on the moon in 1971.

Production of rackets at Waltham Abbey in Essex fell prey to cheaper imports produced overseas, and the factory was closed in 1979, with production concentrated on the Slazenger site at Horbury in West Yorkshire.

Dunlop Slazenger supplied twice as many Wimbledon competitors in 1980 as its nearest rival, Wilson.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the company was slow to see that wooden rackets were going the way of the dinosaur. Eventually, it started manufacturing the new lightweight graphite rackets, and wooden racket production ended in 1984.

From 1981 to 1988, Dunlop Sports sponsored John McEnroe in the most expensive tennis sponsorship deal in the world, worth $500,000 annually, plus commissions on McEnroe branded rackets.

More tennis Grand Slams have been won with Dunlop rackets than any other brand.

By 1982 Dunlop Slazenger had annual sales of £100 million, but it was struggling to remain profitable. In 1983 the company lost £6 million. Alan Finden-Crofts was appointed chief executive, and identified the company weaknesses as a local (as opposed to international) outlook, weak marketing and a lack of a global strategy. By 1986 he had turned around the company to make an annual profit of £16 million.

The Slazenger factory at Horbury, Yorkshire was closed in the late 1980s.

Dunlop Slazenger was sold to its management, backed by the private equity firm Cinven, for £330 million in 1996. Cinven sold Dunlop’s rights to the Puma sports brand in Britain back to its German parent. Cinven invested heavily into the business to make it profitable.

Much of the Dunlop Slazenger sports equipment was manufactured in China by the turn of the century.

A large tennis ball manufacturing plant in Barnsley, Yorkshire was closed in 2002, and the machinery was shipped to a facility outside Manila in the Philippines. Token production in Germany and South Africa also ended, and the Philippine plant became the sole supplier of Dunlop Slazenger tennis balls. Due to Dunlop Slazenger’s high market share, the company estimated that 60 percent of the world’s tennis balls and 90 percent of squash balls were manufactured at the site.

Dunlop was producing around 250,000 golf balls every day by 2003.

Cinven sold the company to Sports Direct International for £40 million in 2004. Sports Direct closed the head office at Camberley with the loss of 37 jobs.

Sports Direct sold Dunlop Sport to Sumitomo Rubber Industries of Japan for £112 million in 2017. Sports Direct retained control of Slazenger, thus reversing the effects of the Dunlop Slazenger merger in 1959.

A history of Donnay Sports

Donnay is best known today as a low-cost clothing brand available from Sports Direct stores.

Donnay_Logo_1

Donnay was established in Belgium in 1913. The business became involved in sporting goods when it began to manufacture wooden tennis rackets from 1934.

Donnay was the largest producer of tennis rackets in the world throughout the 1970s.

Donnay was buoyed by its sponsorship of Bjorn Borg, the superstar tennis player of the era, between 1979 and 1983. As the company did not have a marketing manager until 1987, the company image during that era was very closely tied to Borg.

Donnay first ran into trouble in 1973 when Wilson Sporting Goods dropped the company as its contract tennis racket manufacturer in favour of cheaper production in Taiwan. The Wilson contract had accounted for 1.3 million rackets out of an annual production figure of two million.

Donnay was also slow to make the switch from the increasingly obsolete wooden rackets to the lightweight graphite models. The company manufactured just 3,000 graphite rackets in 1980, against 1.8 million wooden rackets.

When Bjorn Borg retired from tennis in 1983, it was the final nail in the coffin for Donnay. The company had tied its fortunes too closely to a single figure, and had maintained production in Belgium whilst competitors moved production to the Far East. Its production line was ten times longer than rival manufacturers.

The company lost money every year after Borg’s retirement, until it declared bankruptcy, with $35 million of debt, in 1988. It was purchased by Bernard Tapie, a French singer turned businessman, who later acquired Adidas.

Donny finally ended wooden racket production towards the end of the 1980s.

Tapie had a major success when he signed an 18 year old Andre Agassi between 1989 and 1992. Despite this, the company struggled to maintain profitability. The local government in Belgium acquired it to save it from bankruptcy in 1993. The factory in Belgium was closed down, and a company that had employed 600 people now employed 25 at a distribution centre. Mike Ashley, the owner of Sports Direct, acquired the global rights to the brand for $3.9 million in 1996.

Ashley originally supported the brand as a leading tennis company. However in 2004, he acquired Dunlop Slazenger. Dunlop-Slazenger became the prestige tennis brand, and Donnay became the marque for cheap rackets and clothing.

A history of TGI Friday’s in the UK

TGI Friday’s was one of the first American casual dining chains to expand overseas.

Whitbread had established the Beefeater restaurant chain in Britain 1974. Eager to replicate its success, Whitbread experimented with a number of new restaurant concepts in the 1980s. A 50 percent stake in the British franchise for Pizza Hut was to prove highly successful from 1982. The franchise for Quick, a Belgian fast food chain, was acquired, but the concept soon failed.

Whitbread opened the first TGI Friday’s in Britain in Birmingham in 1986. A former Wendy’s in Covent Garden, London was converted in 1987. The site enjoyed a £1 million makeover, and was an exact replica of the American model. By the end of the 1980s further outlets had been established at Birmingham, Fareham, Reading and Cardiff.292px-TGI_Fridays_logo.svg

TGI Friday’s had been established as a singles bar on the east side of Manhattan by Alan Stillman, a perfume salesman, in 1965. At a time when New York pubs and bars were aimed at men, Stillman made his bar brighter, cleaner and more domestic in order to make it more attractive to women. Daniel R. Scoggin was a customer who recognised the franchising potential of the restaurant, and instigated the roll-out of the chain across the US.

TGI Friday’s was the first chain of themed casual dining restaurants. The flamboyant bartenders were the direct inspiration for the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail (1988), which was filmed in the original Friday’s. The restaurant claims to have invented loaded potato skins in 1974, and helped to popularise nachos. After a few years, the chain began to attract families, particularly during the daytime.

The chain was an instant success in Britain. Whitbread had insight into the mindset of the British public, and knowledge of the property market. The Covent Garden site was the busiest TGI Friday’s in the world by 1992, and reputedly the busiest restaurant in Europe. In one week, its 260 seats yielded a turnover of £180,000.

There were 12 sites in Britain by 1993, and the average annual turnover was £2.5 million. According to Sally Dibb and Lyndon Simkin, Friday’s altered the UK dining scene “beyond recognition” due to its vitality, enthusiasm and tight quality control standards. The company hired staff with extrovert personalities, and the restaurants provided a theatrical experience. From the beginning, TGI Friday’s was an early example of a company that tried to be “nice”, to treat its employees fairly and to be a good corporate citizen.

The chain grew to 41 outlets by 2004. At this time, Whitbread indicated that it would divest the chain if profits failed to improve. Sales remained disappointing throughout 2005. Whitbread sold the chain to the American parent company, Carlson, for £70.4 million in 2007. Whitbread felt that it had grown the chain as much as it could.

Squaring off: Wendy’s Hamburgers in the UK

Wendy’s is the third largest hamburger chain in the world. It has tried to break the UK market twice, but now plans to return for a third attempt.

Wendy’s and Grand Metropolitan
The first Wendy’s outlet in Britain opened in London in 1980. For trademark reasons it was called Wendy, not Wendy’s. The operation was a joint venture between Wendy’s International and Grand Metropolitan, a large British hotels and brewing concern. Grand Met was an experienced local operator, having already enjoyed great success with the Berni Inn casual dining chain in Britain. A flagship Wendy outlet was opened on Oxford Street. The over-25s demographic was the target audience.

Grand Met exited the joint venture just one year after it entered it, and Wendy’s International assumed full control of the British operations.

Wendy expanded to 16 restaurants. However the high-cost of rents at its central London sites left the company struggling to make a profit. The sites, all of which were located in London and the South East, were sold to Whitbread for £6.8 million in 1986. The majority of the Wendy sites were converted to Quick, the Belgian fast food brand.

Wendy’s returns to the British market
Wendy’s returned for a second attempt at the UK market in 1992, with outlets at Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street. Outlets were now branded as “Wendy’s”, and featured salad bars. The company announced plans to expand to 70 sites across Britain. The initial expansion concentrated on London and West Yorkshire.

There were twelve restaurants by 1996, including eight company-owned and four franchise sites. Wendy’s retreated from the British market for the second time in 2000. Some of its most prominent sites were taken over by McDonald’s, including Oxford Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, York Way near King’s Cross and Briggate in Leeds. Wendy’s blamed high property and operating costs for its failure in the British market.

Wendy’s announces plans to return to Britain
Wendy’s plans to return to Britain from 2021, with an initial outlet in Reading, Berkshire.

A lot on their plate: Fatty Arbuckle’s

Fatty Arbuckle’s was one of the largest casual dining chains in Britain during the 1990s.

Pete Shotton (1941 – 2017) and Bill Turner (died 1993), two friends from Liverpool, opened the first Fatty Arbuckle’s outlet in Plymouth in 1983. Shotton had been a member of the Quarrymen alongside John Lennon, later of Beatles fame.

Fatty Arbuckle’s was modelled on American diners, and had a retro Hollywood theme. There was a focus on large portions served on 13-inch plates. The restaurant was named after Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of the most successful silent film actors in the 1910s.

A second Fatty Arbuckle’s restaurant was opened in Bournemouth in 1985. Adrian Lee and his wife were appointed managers of the Bournemouth restaurant.

Adrian Lee was promoted to managing director of Fatty Arbuckle’s in 1988.

Bill Turner died in 1993, and Pete Shotton acquired his stake in the business.

Each new Arbuckle’s outlet was to prove 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 Britain by 1997, with 42 outlets.

Arbuckle’s, with its focus on beef burgers 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 in order to appeal to health-conscious diners from 2000.

After making heavy losses, Arbuckle’s 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 the good life. He was adept at acquiring companies, but lacked managerial skill.

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.

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 since closed down.

Pints of interest: the rise of J D Wetherspoon

How did J D Wetherspoon become the most successful pub chain in Britain?

Early life of Tim Martin
Tim Martin (born 1955), was born in Norwich, the son of Northern Irish parents. His father, Ray Martin, was an executive for Guinness and a former Royal Air Force fighter pilot. Due to his father’s career Martin was raised in New Zealand and Belfast.

His parents had a “fiery relationship” and divorced when Martin was 15. He remained friendly with his father but had a distant relationship with his mother.

Martin went on to study law at the University of Nottingham. Living in the city he noted that “there were a lot of very old-fashioned, sleepy pubs run by regional family brewers. They hadn’t been modernised and I think subconsciously that inspired me”.

Martin acquires the lease of Marler’s Bar
Martin moved to London in order to qualify as a barrister in 1978. He found the London pub scene to be poor compared to Nottingham, typified by “loud music, keg beer and high prices”.

Martin eventually found a pub he liked: Marler’s Bar in fashionable Muswell Hill. The proprietor, Andrew Marler (born 1953), had acquired the lease of a small betting shop, and converted it into a bar in early 1979. It was one of relatively few free houses (not tied to sell beer from a single brewery) in the capital at the time, and had a focus on cask ale.

Martin later recalled that “I was convinced that if you put a pub like that in every suburb they would all do well”. He sold his flat for £10,000 and used the money as a deposit to enter into a £70,000 eight year lease with Marler from late 1979. The pub was renamed Martin’s Free House.

“It was reasonably chaotic at the outset”, recalled Gerry Martin (born 1957), brother to Tim, who managed the pub for a few months. Tim Martin later confessed that he “made every mistake going for the first few years”. However sales were brisk, largely due to the fact the the pub was free to sell cask ale from regional brewers that were relatively unknown in the capital.

Martin develops the Wetherspoons formula
Martin was keen to develop a chain of pubs, but he was hampered by the lack of prime location properties available on the market. He commented, “the key is position, position, and yet more position”. The second pub was opened in a converted car showroom in Crouch End in 1981. He began to convert other unconventional premises such as former banks, supermarkets, churches and cinemas in order to get the sites he wanted.

Martin quickly gained expertise in gaining planning permission and securing drinks licenses. He reinvested his profits and acquired debt in order to expand the business.

Martin eventually developed a formula of low prices, cask ale, and no music. Careful attention was paid to pub food and decor. Keen pricing attracted students and pensioners who provided regular custom and what Martin described as “a good mix of clientele”.

By the time the business was incorporated as J D Wetherspoon in 1983 there were eight pubs. The Wetherspoon name came from a teacher of Martin’s who struggled to control his class.

Comparisons began to be made between the chain’s values and the ideal English pub as described by George Orwell in his essay The Moon Under Water. Whilst the similarities were initially coincidental, Martin consequently adopted Orwell’s template, and a number of outlets are named after the essay title.

Six prime North London sites were sold for over £2 million in 1987.

Tim Martin sold a 25 percent stake in the company to Scottish & Newcastle, a large brewer, for £1.5 million in 1988. The chain began to stock Scottish & Newcastle beers such as Younger’s Scotch Bitter and Theakston’s Best.

J D Wetherspoon becomes a public company
J D Wetherspoon was floated on the stock exchange in 1992. By this time there were 44 pubs, all situated in London. Scottish & Newcastle sold its stake in the business, although it continued to be a major beer supplier to the chain.

In 1993 Wetherspoon introduced its all day food menu and dedicated one third of its pubs as smoke-free areas.

The Financial Times reported that the chain was selling Guinness stout at lower prices than the two major supermarkets, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, in 1994.

New properties were double the average pub size, and had almost 100 percent higher turnover, although margins were lower. The Moon Under Water in Manchester was opened as the largest pub in Britain in 1995. Martin commented, “The big pub is a winning formula for us. So much work goes into every application for a licence and permission to open that the bigger the premises the bigger the return for all that effort.”

J D Wetherspoon entered the FTSE 250 in 1996. It was the largest pub chain by volume sales in Britain.

The first outlet in Scotland was opened in 1997. 100 outlets were opened across Britain in 1998.

Since 1998 one third of profits have been distributed to staff.

Wetherspoon had grown to 300 outlets by 1999. An advantage of converting former banks and supermarkets was that the company was able to significantly reduce its tax bill due to capital allowance benefits. Its rate of corporation tax was three percent in 1998, and five percent in 1999. Wetherspoon therefore had a significant incentive to expand its number of outlets, and it helps explain how and why the company expanded so quickly. The legal loophole was closed in 2001.

Outlet sales were four times that of the average pub by 2001. That year, Wetherspoon began to wholeheartedly push its food offering, taking on the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s with its own range of coffees and burgers, and expanding into breakfasts.

Continued expansion
J D Wetherspoon banned smoking in all of its pubs in 2005, ahead of the national ban. 9am openings and TVs (on silent) were rolled out across the chain from 2006. Half of sales were food related by 2007.

From April 2010, all pubs opened at 7am for the breakfast market. This was not altogether successful, and opening times have since largely been scaled back to 8am. Nevertheless, the company became second only to McDonald’s in the breakfast market.

Wetherspoon entered the Republic of Ireland market from 2013. Tim Martin remains keen to open outlets in France, having explored potential sites in Paris, Calais and Lille.

Due to the effect of the Covid pandemic, J D Wetherspoon posted profit losses in 2020 and 2021.

The origins of the full English breakfast

The origins of the full English breakfast are more recent than you might expect.

Historically, the classic English breakfast pairing was bacon and eggs. Bacon was the staple meat for the agricultural class for hundreds of years, and eggs were available in most homes each morning. As late as the 1950s, an “English breakfast” was shorthand for bacon and eggs.

Seemingly beginning around 1915, as wartime economy and rationing began to bite, the cold remains of the previous evening meal began to be added to bacon and eggs. As bacon and eggs became scarcer (and more expensive), the additions of these items bulked out the meal and prevented waste. Fried bread and potatoes were popular starchy additions. Sausages were not subject to rationing, and began to be introduced as a bacon substitute.

The earliest reference I can find to the phrase “full English breakfast” is in a 1930 edition of the Daily Mail.

A 1978 edition of The Globe and Mail of Canada lists the meal as comprising “eggs and bacon, tomatoes, sausages, kippers and heaven knows what else”.

The phrase was first shortened to “full English” (minus breakfast) in the mid-1990s.

Today, a full English comprises of, more or less, sausage, bacon, eggs, some starch such as fried bread, toast, hash browns or sauté potatoes, and some vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans. Black pudding is popular. Regional variations include white pudding and oatcakes.

On the trail: a history of Slug and Lettuce

Slug and Lettuce is a British chain of bar restaurants with 70 outlets.

Slug and Lettuce was established by entrepreneur Hugh Corbett (born 1943) in 1985. Corbett brought a degree of trendiness and relative luxury to his pubs, with an increased focus on wine and food. His pubs were all given nonsensical names, which differentiated them from their competitors (eventually Slug and Lettuce became the standard name).

Corbett imitated the stripped-back character of David Bruce’s Firkin pub chain. Bare pine board flooring, no curtains, and large glass windows were the order of the day. This meant that people could look into the pub from the street, and the new light and airy open plan design made the pubs more attractive to women.

Corbett cannily located the first Slug and Lettuce in Islington, which was beginning to undergo gentrification due to its proximity to the newly liberalised City of London.

There were six outlets by 1986.

Slug and Lettuce was sold to David Bruce for £2.25 million in 1992. Bruce began to pursue the relatively untapped female market in earnest, imitating elements of the upmarket Pitcher & Piano chain and increasing the emphasis on food.

Slug and Lettuce underwent another rebranding, aimed at creating an English pub/Continental bar hybrid, in 1995.

The rise and fall of the Little Chef empire (1958 – 2018)

Little Chef was the largest restaurant chain in Britain with 433 outlets.

The first Little Chef restaurant was opened in 1958. Sam Alper (1924 – 2002) and Peter Merchant had been inspired by diner caravans they had seen in America, and introduced the concept to Britain.

Alper had a background in caravan manufacturing, and the first outlets were portable prefabricated roadside snack bars. Outlets could be built, assembled and opened within a matter of hours.

Little Chef was acquired by Trust Houses, a hotel operator, in 1961. Trust Houses announced plans to invest heavily to expand the Little Chef concept.

By 1964 Shell-Mex and BP had discovered that opening Little Chef outlets next to its petrol forecourts helped to boost fuel sales.

Outlets began to be built from brick from 1965. The Little Chef brand guaranteed consistency for weary travellers in unfamiliar locations. There were twelve outlets in 1965, and 28 by the end of 1968.

In 1970 Trust Houses was acquired by Forte to form Trust House Forte, a large catering and hotels company. The new owner had the necessary funds necessary to roll out a rapid expansion of Little Chef.

As it was difficult to acquire roadside planning permission, Trust House Forte acquired a large number of existing transport cafes, and converted them to the Little Chef format.

A typical Little Chef meal cost 35p in 1972. It was around this time that the “Fat Charlie” logo was introduced.

Due to rapid expansion there were 174 outlets by 1976. Little Chef was the largest restaurant chain in Britain by 1983, with 314 outlets.

In 1986 the Competition Commission found that a significant proportion of customers were locals, not commuting drivers. Little Chef was innovative and forward-thinking, providing high chairs and baby food when most British restaurateurs regarded children as irritants rather than potential customers. Meanwhile, strict roadside planning laws preventing new buildings effectively worked to maintain the company’s monopoly.

Trust House Forte acquired Happy Eater, Little Chef’s only major rival with 90 outlets, in 1986.

Little Chef was acquired by Granada, an operator of motorway service stations, in 1996. Granada hiked prices, charging £7.95 for a full English breakfast in 1996! The high prices did not guarantee quality: even the omelettes were frozen and then reheated.

Granada described Little Chef in 1996 as “tired and neglected”. Management Today described the chain in 1997 as “perhaps the most neglected part of the old Forte empire”.

Under Granada the total number of restaurants expanded to 433 (68 of which were Happy Eater outlets) by 1999.  Granada also began to franchise Burger King in some of their existing outlets. Upon conversion, Burger King outlets would see double the turnover of former Little Chefs.

In 2002 Little Chef was serving 30 million people a year.

Little Chef was the first branded roadside restaurant chain in Britain, and had few competitors until the motorway service stations began to improve exponentially in the mid 2000s. They now offer a range of desirable high street brands such as Burger King, W H Smith and M&S Simply Food. Meanwhile McDonald’s have vastly extended their drive-thru presence and offer faster service and lower prices.

In 2013, a Kuwaiti private equity conglomerate acquired the company. In 2014 there were only 72 outlets.

The remaining outlets were sold to Euro Garages in 2017. Euro Garages lost the rights to the Little Chef brand after one year, and all remaining outlets were converted to the EG Diner fascia.