Has Fat Charlie had his chips?

It’s a roadside institution but many people feel the Little Chef restaurant chain is stuck in the past. But with new owners looking to rescue the chain, KEIRON PIM looks at where it all went wrong for Fat Charlie.

Two rashers of crispy bacon, a sausage, two griddled eggs, mushrooms, sauté potatoes, griddled tomato, baked beans and toasted or fried bread . . . what's not to like?

Yours for £6.99, the Olympic Breakfast pretty well sums up the image of the Little Chef restaurants - well, that and the famous Fat Charlie logo of a chubby white chef on a red background.

In its heyday, a long car journey just wasn't complete without a stop at a Little Chef. Whether you went for the all-day breakfast or the pancakes, the roadside diner did the trick - and you even got a free lollipop for finishing your meal.

But the future of the chain is in the balance at the moment, and part of the problem is that its image remains rooted in the 1980s.

Since then the British public have become more diet-conscious, and while the last couple of years have seen Little Chef introduce healthier options such as paninis or smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, the perception remains that it is stuck in the past.

Staff at the EDP yesterday came up with the following impressions of the restaurant: "surly waitresses", "formica tables", "too expensive" and "greasy plastic salt and pepper shakers", balanced by: "I quite like their breakfasts". Whether or not they are fair comment, these perceptions are probably widely shared, because it is reported that the business has been losing £3m a year.

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Despite this it remains one of Britain's best known brands - the Fat Charlie logo is so popular that an attempt in 2004 to slim him down caused outrage amongst fans, who registered 15,000 complaints with the then owners, the Travelodge hotels group. Little Chef continues to employ almost 4,000 people at 234 outlets. The restaurants are estimated to serve more than 20 million customers a year, including 10 million cups of tea, 12 million rashers of bacon and 13 million eggs.

So there is apparently still a good demand for its services, which may explain why turnaround specialist RCapital secured a deal yesterday to buy Little Chef for less than

£10m from Israeli property group Arazim.

It has been reported that the new deal could lead to around 40 restaurants being closed and an unspecified number of people losing their jobs.

The business was bought last year for £52m by its chief executive, Simon Heath, and the People's Restaurant Group, headed by Lawrence Wosskow.

However, it was reported on Monday that Mr Wosskow, who suffered a heart attack in the summer, was in talks with Arazim about selling his stake.

Little Chef started life as an 11-seat restaurant in Reading in 1958 and now has sites dotted around the UK and Ireland.

Founder Sam Alper, a caravan manufacturer, had intended to model the restaurant on roadside diners in the US and the opening of the first restaurant coincided with Britain's first motorway.

By the 1980s, Little Chef was well established throughout the country - a beacon to hungry motorists from families to business travellers.

Whether you think it was a blessing or a curse probably depends on your political persuasion, but ex-prime minister John Major gave the chain his endorsement by stopping for breakfast at a Happy Eater, the sister restaurant of Little Chef, in 1991.

By the start of this century, the business was seen to be under pressure with a trend towards healthy eating and competition from other outlets such as Burger King and KFC.

The restaurants attracted critics such as Janet Street-Porter, who reportedly joked: "When I die I'm going to throw a party for all my enemies in a branch of Little Chef."

As it stands there are probably more people who agree with her than Mr Major - but the chain's new owners will be doing their best to reverse Little Chef's fortunes.

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