America’s diners and fast-food restaurants have long penetrated the UK food scene, but one came much sooner than the golden arches of McDonald’s or the likes of Burger King and KFC. Little Chef became one of the most popular food chains in the country – and the very first store opened here in Berkshire.
Stopping off at a Little Chef during a long road trip on the way to or from a holiday was one of life’s little pleasures. The chain had 439 restaurants across the UK in its heyday, having started off with a tiny restaurant on Oxford Road in Reading.
Inspired by popular diners in America, Little Chef opened its first store in 1958 in Berkshire. The very first branch had room for just 11 seats before the chain expanded over the years.
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Most of its subsequent restaurants were found on major A-roads across the UK, as well as at motorway service stations, making it the perfect place to take a break from travelling. The very first branches were prefabricated buildings but from the mid-1960s, the stores began to be built with brick and there would be room in each one for around 40 customers.
Within a decade of the first Little Chef opening, there were 25 restaurants around the country. This jumped to as many as 44 branches by 1970 and then 100 two years later.
The chain was best known for its Olympic Breakfast, a take on the classic full English, as well as Jubilee Pancakes. By 1976 there were 174 outlets across the UK.
By the 1980s, Little Chef’s parent company acquired all of its rival Happy Eater restaurants, leading to its peak of 439 restaurants in the late 1990s. But things took a turn in 2005, when its newest owners announced that 130 underperforming restaurants would be closed.
This reduced the number to 234 at the time, as a number of restaurants had already shut down. A year later the chain was taken into administration.
Between then and now, various attempts to revitalise Little Chef took place but with little triumph. Even Heston Blumenthal’s intervention in 2009 during a Channel 4 documentary was unsuccessful.
In February 2017, Euro Garages purchased the Little Chef locations from its previous owners, Kout Food Group. As a result, Little Chef branches began to be replaced by the likes of Starbucks and Greggs, and the number of Little Chefs dropped to 66.
By 2018, all of the country’s Little Chef restaurants had closed or rebranded. By October of that year, the ones that had yet to be converted were shut down and Little Chef was lost to memory.
The retro feel of Little Chef was a huge part of its charm. But unfortunately, it also led to its downfall as a lack of modernisation saw the chain fall behind its rivals.
Do you have fond memories of Little Chef and the Oxford Road branch? Share them with us at email@example.com.