Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hesto and Little Chef.

I've been most interested in the programme at 9pm most nights this week on Channel 4 as Heston Blumenthal ( he and Gordon Ramsey are the only 3 star Michelin chefs in the UK - and Gordon has, I think, a total of ten, greedy bugger) tries to turn around Little Chef.
Charles Forte made Little Chef one of the cornerstones of his empire, the cash cow that made everything possible. I always thought Gerry Robinson's taunt that Forte were " Motorway service station operators" in rather poor taste, and certainly not true for the Grosvenor. I was sad to see the Cafe Royal closing. Clearly lots of other people thought so too as the sale in the last few days of the contents ( including the famous boxing ring for under £500) realised prices hugely over the estimates
My memory as a young lad of Little Chef was of an excellent place to stop for breakfast, or a gammon steak, with chips and peas. No fancy stuff. Menu was half a page. And it was cheap.
I think the decline began under Robinson and Charlie Allan, the latter not someone I personally ever rated very highly. All the new fancy stuff did was confuse people about what they were going in for. Interestingly, there was a recent article about London Restaurants trying to be all things to all men, and consequently not doing a very good job of any of it.
Ignoring for a moment that the non-breakfast food nowadays is almost inedible ( and the coffee is certainly undrinkable), more than 50% of what Little Chef serves is still breakfast.
So I was somewhat surprised that Hesto hadn't attacked this area to start with. It would seem to me he was trying to reinvent the wheel, when simply giving it a wipe would help.
Last night he did just that and the sales of breakfast in the trial outlet soared. If he manages to do the same with the rest of the menu, things really will turn around.
I'm not sure who brought Hesto on board to get things moving, but I doubt very much it was the CEO of the company. He appeared to me to have less idea about catering than I do. He had learned all the management speak ( " Blue sky thinking.... pushing the envelope... " yech!) but certainly had no ability to manage the company seating so that it wasn't either broken or the stuffing spilling out.
Little Chef clearly inspires enormous loyalty both in customers and its staff - no one interviewed had been there less than 7 years and many had 13,17 or 25 years under their belts.
People talk of chicken tikka masala being the Britain's favourite dish, but ask any foreigner what meal they remember in Britain and it will always be the Great British Breakfast.
With baked beans of course.


Brian Boru said...

Ah, Little Chef, it brings back memories. For years when we travelled on holidays in the UK in the car with the children they demonstrated a remarkable capacity both to sleep in the back but miraculously to wake up whenever a Little Chef was looming up. Those were the days.

kinglear said...

BB - I believe they still serve over 22 million meals a year....