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Munch time: a history of Happy Eater

Little Chef dominated roadside catering in Britain, and inspired a rival, Happy Eater, which it was later allowed to acquire.

Happy Eater was established by Michael Pickard in 1973. Michael Pickard had managed Little Chef, but had been dismissed, supposedly following a personality clash with its owner, Sir Charles Forte.

Pickard established a rival to Little Chef in May 1973 with a 60-seat Happy Eater outlet at Ripley, Surrey. Two further sites were opened that year, one near Ashford in Kent and one near Crawley in West Sussex.

The business drew inspiration from the Howard Johnson’s chain of restaurants in the United States. Happy Eater was the first roadside restaurant chain in Britain to principally target the family market. Happy Eater outlets had children’s menus and baby-feeding facilities as well as superior play area facilities compared to Little Chef, both inside and outside.

By 1980 there were 17 restaurants, and the company needed expansion capital. Courage, the national brewer, acquired a 52.7 percent stake.

The company had a turnover of £8 million in 1983-4, which rose to £11.8 million for 1984-5. By 1986 there were 61 outlets and the company employed 1,430 people.

The majority of outlets were situated in South East England, East Anglia, the Midlands and along the A1. In 1986 only one outlet was franchised, the rest being owned or leased. Outlets could seat between 70 and 110 diners.

In 1987 the chain was acquired by Trust House Forte, the owners of Little Chef, for £14.2 million. In 1988 the chain peaked with 90 outlets.

The Prime Minister, John Major, notably dined at a Happy Eater in 1991. For this he was mocked by some in the media as an uncivilised buffoon, but others praised his demonstration of the common touch.

In 1995 the chain was described in The Observer, The Guardian and Scotland on Sunday as “downmarket”.

The first six months of 1995 saw 14 outlets rebranded as Little Chef, leaving fewer than 50 Happy Eaters remaining.

In 1996 Little Chef was acquired by Granada, a conglomerate which operated motorway service stations. In October 1996 it was announced that all remaining Happy Eaters would either be converted or closed down. The brand ceased to trade in 1998.