Category Archives: Hospitality

Roaring trade: a history of J Lyons (1894 – 1945)

How did J Lyons become the largest catering business in the world within 30 years?

J Lyons is established, and the first tea rooms are opened
Barnett Salmon (1829 – 1897) and Isidore Gluckstein (1851 – 1920) established a successful chain of tobacconists.

Montagu Gluckstein (1854 – 1922), a salesman for the firm, lamented the poor state of catering at trade exhibitions. He suggested that the public could be provided with a better offer than beer and sandwiches. Gluckstein and Alfred Salmon partnered with Joseph Lyons, a distant relative to form J Lyons & Co with a capital of £5,000. J Lyons & Co successfully provided catering for the Newcastle Exhibition of 1887. Contracts for other exhibitions soon followed.

J Lyons & Co was established as a public company with a capital of £120,000 in 1894. The original stakeholders were Montagu Gluckstein, his brother Isidore Gluckstein, brother-in-law Barnett Salmon (maternal grandfather to Nigella Lawson) and Joseph Lyons. Montagu Gluckstein was the de facto chairman of the business.

The first Lyons tea shop opened in September 1894 at 213 Piccadilly. It had 200 seats and a £30,000 lease. After a year the shop had made a profit of £11,400, and the company was able to pay a dividend of ten percent.

The first Lyons Tea Room was sited at 213 Piccadilly
The first Lyons Tea Room was sited at 213 Piccadilly

The early tea room exteriors were enticing and extrovert, and the interiors were often glamorous, and intended to evoke the great Victorian exhibitions and Parisian cafes.

The Lyons tea shop girls went on strike in protest against low wages in 1895.

J Lyons establishes Cadby Hall
Cadby Hall was opened in Hammersmith to centrally produce baked goods for the company’s 17 tea shops from 1896. There were 37 tea shops in London by 1900, and expansion had begun in the provinces, with six branches in Manchester, four in Liverpool, and two in both Leeds and Sheffield.

Quality was good and prices were reasonable. The tea rooms were particularly popular throughout the daytime with lower middle class office workers. Cinema and theatre-goers patronised the chain on evenings.

The first Lyons Corner House was opened on Coventry Street in 1909. The Corner Houses were much larger than the tea rooms, with a greater appeal to the middle classes. Live bands and an informal atmosphere helped to cement their popularity. The Coventry Street outlet became the Lyons flagship outlet, and seated 2,000 diners on multiple floors. It was the largest restaurant in the world. A second Corner House, capable of seating 1,200 diners, was opened at the Strand in 1915.

J Lyons was one of the largest caterers in the world by 1911. Half a million meals were served every day through 200 shops and restaurants. The company employed over 12,000 people, including 2,000 people at Cadby Hall. The Cadby Hall works covered ten acres and included sixteen bakehouses, five cold storage rooms and three butchers’ shops.

20,000 people were employed by 1913. J Lyons was the largest baker in London, the largest tea merchant in the world and the largest restaurant operator in the world.

J Lyons dismissed all naturalised German and Austrian employees from its staff in 1914.

J Lyons also expanded into hotels, building the Regent Palace Hotel in London at a cost of £600,000. Opened in 1915, it was the largest hotel in Europe, with 1,028 bedrooms.

Lyons tea was far and away the market leader by 1915: five million packets were sold every week by 160,000 shopkeepers. The company accounted for one in four cups of tea sold in London.

Lyons had a capital of over £2 million by 1917.

Tea, coffee, bread, cakes, ice cream and groceries which had originally been produced for the tea rooms began to be sold directly to the customer, all manufactured at the company’s Hammersmith site.

In 1918 Lyons acquired two leading packet tea companies, positioned second and fourth place in the market respectively: Horniman of London and Black & Green of Manchester. The acquisitions were intended to increase Lyons’s market share in the North of England: Horniman was strong in Yorkshire and G&B strong in the North West.

The company had a share capital of £3.5 million by 1919. By this time Lyons was likely the largest catering company in the British Empire. There were 182 tea shops by 1919, making it easily the largest chain of its kind in the country.

Largest caterer in the world; Greenford plant is established
Cadby Hall was struggling to meet demand by 1919, so Lyons acquired a 30-acre freehold manufacturing site at Greenford, on the outskirts of London. Lyons opened the largest tea packing plant in the world there in 1920. Coffee, cocoa and confectionery production were also transferred to Greenford. It was the sixth largest manufacturing site in Britain.

J Lyons was the largest catering business in the world by 1921. Cadby Hall boasted the largest bakery in the world.

The Trocadero Restaurant was acquired in 1921.

There were over 22,000 employees by 1922. There were 160 Lyons tea shops in London, and a further 50 throughout Britain.

It was calculated that seven million people drank Lyons tea each week in 1922.

Lyons began construction on the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch, the largest hotel in Europe, in 1922. It had 1,500 rooms and a Corner House.

The Coventry Street Corner House was extended in 1923 to create what was likely the largest restaurant in the world, with seats for 4,500 diners. It also boasted the largest chocolate shop in the world. It was open 24 hours a day.

An interior view of the Lyons Corner House on Coventry Street in 1942

Ice cream manufacture at Cadby Hall had reached the mass production scale by 1923.

Lyons was the 20th largest company in Britain by 1930, with a market value of £12.1 million and 30,000 employees. It was the largest catering company in the world. Over ten million meals were sold each week. Lyons held 14 percent of the packet tea market, with over 1.25 million packets sold every day. 600,000 Swiss rolls were sold every week.

The teashop chain continued to grow strongly until the onset of the Great Depression. Teashop losses between 1934 and 1938 totalled £374,000. Despite this, due to its manufacturing and hotel concerns, the company remained the largest catering company in the world in the latter half of the 1930s.

Lyons directly employed over 42,000 people by 1937.

Lyons produced 3.5 million gallons of ice cream in 1939.

Lyons had 253 tea rooms by 1939. Due to wartime labour shortages, self service was introduced to the tea rooms from 1941, and rolled-out across the chain from 1945.

Part II of this post can be found here.

Movers and shakers: a history of Burger King in the UK

Burger King is one of the largest fast food chains in Britain. Burger King entered the UK market in 1974 but struggled to develop scale until it was acquired by Grand Metropolitan in 1989. Grand Metropolitan purchased the Wimpy hamburger chain and converted its outlets to the Burger King fascia. Later expansion came when Granada began to convert its roadside Little Chef branches to Burger King from 1996.

Early expansion in the UK
Burger King was established in Florida in 1953. Burger King was the third-largest fast food chain in the world by the 1970s, behind only McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

McDonald’s had entered the British market in 1974 and Burger King soon followed, with its first outlet established on Coventry Street in central London from 1976.

Burger King planned to aim at a higher quality market than McDonald’s. Its range of products included the Whopper burger as well as fries, milkshakes and apple pies.

Burger King established its first restaurant outside London in Reading, Berkshire, in 1982, to take its total number of outlets to nine.

One of the earliest franchisees was Management Agency and Music, a record company co-owned by singers Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck.

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Burger King UK suffered from heavy losses in its early stages. The European operations headquarters were relocated from Zurich in Switzerland to London in 1983.

Expansion continued at a slow but steady rate: there were 14 outlets, including three drive-through locations, by 1987.

Burger King acquired eight Quick hamburger sites from Whitbread for around £7 million in 1988.

Wimpy acquisition and further expansion
Like many of the American fast food chains, Burger King struggled to succeed in the UK until it found a British partner. Burger King’s American parent company was acquired by the London-based hospitality company Grand Metropolitan in 1989.

Grand Metropolitan acquired the British-based Wimpy Hamburger business, and converted 150 counter-service Wimpy outlets to the Burger King fascia. With 180 outlets, Burger King now had scale in Britain, which offered significant economies for the business.

Burger King offered faster service, a wider product range, and better training for staff than Wimpy.

Burger King had 250 restaurants across Britain by 1994. New sites were developed at out of town locations.

Roadside services operator Granada introduced Burger King branches at its 24 sites in 1995. Granada discovered that converting a Little Chef into a Burger King had the potential to double sales.

Burger King had 465 outlets in the UK by 1997. The company held 15 percent of the British burger restaurant market by 1999. Following this period of expansion, the chain was to effectively stagnate for the next twenty years.

Burger King was implied in the horsemeat scandal of 2013, when its own investigation revealed that “trace amounts” of horse DNA were discovered in meat from its supplier in Ireland. The company immediately terminated its contract with the supplier.

Bridgepoint and Caspian Group acquired Burger King UK in 2017.

There are 530 Burger King outlets in the UK in 2021, with the vast majority operated by franchisees.

Burger King UK announced plans to list on the London Stock Exchange with a value of £600 million in 2021.

The hole story: a history of Dunkin’ Donuts in Britain

Dunkin’ Donuts has failed in the British market twice. Will it succeed on its third attempt?

1965 – 1968
Dunkin’ Donuts announced plans to establish a chain of 250 shops across Britain in 1965. The first outlet was opened at Ludgate Circus, London in October 1965. The venture was a “flop” according to The Economist, and the operation entered into liquidation in 1968.

1988 – 1999
The second attempt began in 1988. Somewhat frivolously, its British head office was at 48 Carnaby Street, London. Four outlets were opened in the Birmingham area, with a bakery at Leamington Spa. Six Dunkin’ Donuts (including a 24-hour branch in Glasgow) and a bakery in Livingston were established in Scotland. The plan was to open 100 outlets, with a focus on the London area. The outlets and bakeries were all closed down in 1999, after continuously losing money.

During its second attempt, Dunkin’ Donuts was actually owned by a British company, Allied Domecq, which has substantial knowledge of the local property and catering markets, as the owner of J Lyons (including the Wimpy burger chain) and 3,500 pubs.

2013 to present
Dunkin’ Donuts returned to Britain in 2013. Management may have been encouraged by the success of rival doughnut retailer Krispy Kreme. The chairman and chief executive of Dunkin’ Donuts in America is also a Brit. But Krispy Kreme clearly presents itself as a premium priced “treat”, whereas the Dunkin’ Donuts model is more of a value proposition akin to Greggs.

A history of TGI Friday’s in the UK

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

Alan Stillman, a perfume salesman, established TGI Friday’s on the east side of Manhattan 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. Stillman recalled, “there were really no good places for singles to hang out. No places where a single girl felt comfortable going into a bar area.” The venue quickly developed a reputation as a singles bar, popular with airline stewardesses and junior executives.

Stillman also pushed the food offering, with large portions at reasonable prices. In the first full year the 60 cover venue took over $500,000.

Stillman soon opened more outlets across New York City.

The flamboyant bartenders became the direct inspiration for the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail (1988), which was filmed in the original Friday’s.

Franchise outlets were opened in the Midwest. The Dallas branch became the most successful restaurant in the chain, with annual sales of $2 million by 1972.

TGI Friday’s became the first chain of themed casual dining restaurants. The restaurant claims to have invented loaded potato skins in 1974, and helped to popularise nachos. From the mid-1980s the business was repositioned from a singles bars to a restaurant.

Whitbread establishes the franchise in Britain
Whitbread had established the Beefeater restaurant chain in Britain in 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 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 Fareham, Reading and Cardiff.292px-TGI_Fridays_logo.svg

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 business if profits failed to improve. Sales remained disappointing throughout 2005. Whitbread felt that they had grown the chain as much as they could, and sold the chain to the American parent company, Carlson, for £70.4 million in 2007.

Electra Private Equity acquired the business for £99 million in 2014. Electra spun off TGI Friday’s as Hostmore, a listed company, in 2021.

Squaring off: Wendy’s Hamburgers in the UK

Wendy’s is the third largest hamburger chain in the world. It has failed twice in the British market- will it succeed on its third attempt?

Wendy’s and Grand Metropolitan
Wendy’s entered the British market with a flagship restaurant on Oxford Street in 1980. For trademark reasons it was called Wendy, not Wendy’s. The operation was a joint venture with Grand Metropolitan, a large British hospitality concern. Grand Met was an experienced local operator, having already enjoyed great success with the Berni Inn casual dining chain. Plans were announced to open 500 outlets across Britain, with an over-25s target demographic.

Grand Met exited the joint venture after just six months. Wendy’s International assumed full control of the British operations.

A second outlet was opened on the Strand in 1981.

Wendy expanded to 16 restaurants. However high rental costs at its central London sites, menu problems, and a weak economy left the business 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. Whitbread converted the sites into Quick, the Belgian fast food brand, and Pizza Hut outlets.

Denny Lynch, vice president of communications for Wendy’s, explained:

we were doing so well in the US, we just kind of assumed that it would carry over. But it’s a lot harder to do than just putting up a restaurant. It takes a better understanding of the nuances of each one of these countries you’re going into.

Wendy’s returns to the British market
Wendy’s returned for a second attempt at the UK market in 1992. The first two branches were at Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street. Outlets were now branded as “Wendy’s”, and featured salad bars. Sites were concentrated at London and West Yorkshire, with plans to expand to 70 outlets.

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 returned to Britain in 2021, with an outlet in Reading.

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 parents from Northern Ireland. His father, Ray Martin, was a former Royal Air Force pilot who worked as an executive for Guinness. 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. He acquired a taste for cask ale from local breweries such as Shipstone’s and the Home Brewery, “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 city’s pub scene to be poor compared to Nottingham, typified by “loud music, keg beer and high prices”.

Martin eventually found a pub which appealed to him: 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.

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.

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“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”. A converted car showroom in Crouch End became the second pub in 1981.

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. Further unconventional premises such as former banks, supermarkets, churches and cinemas were acquired.

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 was opened in 1997. 100 outlets were opened across Britain in 1998.

One third of profits have been distributed to staff since 1998.

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.

Pubs opened from 10am in order to cater to the increasingly important breakfast market from 2002.

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.

Food accounted for half of all sales by 2007. That year free wifi was introduced across the chain.

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. Guinness and Murphy’s stouts were not stocked due to pricing concerns.

The number of outlets peaked at 951 in 2015. This number had declined to 859 by 2022.

J D Wetherspoon posted profit losses in 2020 and 2021 due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tim Martin has stated that he is keen to open outlets in France, having explored potential sites in Paris, Calais and Lille.

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 Little Chef concept is developed
Sam Alper (1924 – 2002), a caravan manufacturer, and Peter Merchant, a caterer, had been inspired by diner caravans they had seen in America. They introduced the concept to Britain when they opened the first Little Chef restaurant in 1958.

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.

Trust House Forte expand the business
Trust Houses merged with Forte to form Trust House Forte, a large catering and hotels company, in 1970. 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.

Subsequent owners and decline
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.