Little Chef was the largest restaurant chain in Britain. At its peak it boasted 433 outlets, but this has since been reduced to around 70.
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.
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 familiar Little Chef brand guaranteed consistency for weary travellers. 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. Ten years later there were 250 outlets. Little Chef was the largest restaurant chain in Britain by 1986, with more outlets than Berni Inn.
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.