Tel. 01935 840087
Last Visited: October 2010
Before I start this review I must make an honest confession... I am a (former) second generation Little Chef worker. Following in my mother’s footsteps I worked at the restaurant for a year as a pot washer and drink server. The Little Chef has always had a welcome place in my heart as I believe my trips there during my formative years to be the source of my love for food of a greasy variety. Though it could also have also been the story of the day my Mum served Geoff Capes (he had loads of fried eggs) which served as the catalyst for my fondness for fried food! From the cholesterol filled aroma as you enter the restaurant, to the identical interior to every restaurant, each visit brings back warm childhood memories. But are such fond memories worth hanging onto?
The Little Chef has in recent years seen its ownership change hands multiple times and undergo a series of merges and expansions. They have swallowed up their sister Road-side chain, ‘the Happy Eater’ and seen fast-food giant Burger King open up takeaways in selected restaurants. Despite being part of the culinary fabric of the country for so many years, the Little Chef’s popularity and number of restaurants has dwindled due to increased competition and a shift in the public’s eating habits. The recent introduction of the Michelin stared celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, and an accompanying TV documentary, to try and modernise the faded brand did bring the chain back into the attention of the breakfast eating public and their website claims that still each year over 20 million people* are served in their restaurants. That's*:
* 10 million cups of tea
* 12 million rashers of bacon
* 10 million eggs
* and 13 million sausages
So at least five years since my last visit to the franchise, I find myself back to see if the magic is still there, or has long since faded away.
A trip to the West Country brought with it a ridiculously early start and a welcome opportunity to stop and partake in a long established British tradition, the rest-stop fry-up. Walking into the Podimore restaurant I felt like I was stepping back in time. I could have been 8 again and visiting my mum at work in Five Oaks in Sussex, the familiar red and white sign, AA maps for sale in front of the door and a décor firmly stuck in the 1980’s. Despite the early hour we were greeted by the chirpy smile of the employee who was to be our waiter. After being quickly escorted through the familiar restaurant layout, we sat in a seat not too far from the cooking range and at once stole in front of the hand of Mrs NoEggs to grab the menu. Chivalry was indeed dead.
The breakfast menu was not as I remembered it, it was as if I was visiting an old friend but where as a long time ago the friend was always up for a good time, now they had a sensible side and now preferred a night in with a book, a warm blanket and a mug of coco. Yes, alongside the traditional fry up menu there was a healthy option menu. The old favourites were still there of course, the ‘Olympic breakfast’ (with no black pudding, I always thought it had it?), the ‘American style breakfast’ and the 'Early Starter'. But alongside them now stands the 'Lighter Start' menu, featuring such hits as porridge, pancakes, smoked haddock kedgeree (Haddock in a butter & parsley sauce on a bed of kedgeree rice) and a breakfast Sunday (yoghurt and fruit, topped with granola).
I plumped for the Olympic breakfast whilst Mrs NoEggs went for, to my dismay, for one of the lighter options, the ‘Healthy Start’ (The ‘Breakfast Sunday’, tea, toast and jam. Our breakfasts arrived very quickly and were well presented and freshly cooked and were exactly what we expected. Despite all the claims of change in the media in the five years since my last visit 90% of things were still the same as they always have been. The ingredients used during our visit have not changed in the 25 years I have been going to Little Chef’s. Again the catering standard bacon, sausages, beans and black pudding used were as could be found at any other roadside cafe; the only difference is that they were more expensive!
Out of all the individual items served the pork sausages were the most disappointing, as despite the breakfast costing the same as what you would find at the upper end of the pricing scale, at The Real Eating Company, Farm and Bills for example, a cheaper sourced ingredient was being served. Their claim that the sausage was an award winning 'British' Pork sausage was in my opinion far from the mark and I would certainly not like to be a judge for that competition as the other competitors, judging by this standard could have been a threat to my health! As the chain is seeking to re-establish itself as a and the inclusion of a more visually appealing offering, a flavoursome Lincolnshire or a juicy Cumberland, or locally sourced produce, would entice people in and give a unique selling point to their breakfasts. As the price of a breakfast is comparable to the more high brow establishments, I believe that we are quite within our right to expect ingredients that befit the price we are paying, times have moved on and with the competition available people can travel into any town find a Weatherspoons pub or supermarket cafe and get a breakfast for two for the price of what they charge for one serving here.
All this does sound very negative though, so to just make things clear this was not a bad breakfast experience at all. It was very well cooked, presented, was piping hot and the portion size was bigger than I remember. The service was also punctual but not smothering, the people at LC head office can give them another gold star if they want as their smiles lifted our spirits on our 5 hour marathon journey. It was just that for the price we expected more, we paid a comparable amount to what we had spent recently at the upmarket locally sourced cafe 'Farm' in Brighton, so perhaps I am just spoilt by the places I visit and nearly £8 for a breakfast is actually acceptable in the modern age? But I just cannot see that if they charge the more than a cafe with better ingredients and serve 20 million people a year, why can they not provide better quality for a lower price? I'm no businessman but even with a reduction on the profit they receive for each breakfast; surely the provision of locally sourced sausages won't break the company will it?
I'm honestly trying to not sound too negative about our visit, so another plus point was the inclusion of the lighter menu. This was good to see and will suit people not in favour of a greasy burst first thing in the morning and who desire something a little more sophisticated and less hearty. The multiple healthy options show that the company is trying to build upon its traditional roots and move into the 21st century. But whether they last until the 22nd, is however far from certain in this harsh economic climate.
The Little Chef as a restaurant does service a need, for the majority of visitors they are just simply passing through and wanting to get some much needed energy into them, so the options available are simple and effective. However the recent exposure of the chain within the media has been geared to raise its profile both as an option for a quick meal and also as a place where the whole family can experience a quality meal. They pride themselves on providing 'Good food on the go', making 'freshly prepared meals' with 'the best ingredients we can buy', but the reality is far from the truth. The breakfasts they make are still as good as they were back in 1985 when I first visited, the only trouble is that the year now is 2010 and society has moved on.
In order to prevent me adding an additional comment of 'Has now sadly ceased trading' to this review over the next few years, 'real' changes and not just a temporary increase in public awareness as was seen with Heston's efforts, are urgently required. When people walk through the doors they want to see that the company has moved on and quality and customer satisfaction have been made a priority. This could be achieved through a few simple steps. The quality of the ingredients needs to be improved, the interiors of all restaurants must be taken out of the 80's and livened up and most importantly a real unique selling point added to their breakfasts such as locally sourced ingredients or a special family breakfast deal. If these sensible but surprisingly overlooked aims are met they would immediately start to get customers through those doors of their own choice rather than being the only option they have available to them. After recently telling people I was writing a review for my trip there more than one person has said that their family referred to them as "Rip-off Chef" and from this it is clear that for them to survive into the 21st century this negative public opinion, held in some quarters, must be turned around and a new love for one of Britain's oldest chains rekindled. If just to preserve my childhood memories for a few years more, I hope that it does.
*Stats and figures for this article are taken from the Little Chef's own website.
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