Memories of working at the celebrated British motorway cafe (2013)
When I was seventeen I was made a supervisor at Little Chef. It was a pretty big deal. A service station restaurant was an exciting place to work, and I was at the epicentre of it all. For decades the gas stations and diners that you could find popping up along the endless stretches of American highways had captured the imagination of photographers and writers – Ed Ruscha, William Eggleston, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, et al. And while there may be no heavyweight photographers or writers that have waxed poetic about the British service station—with due credit to Peter Kay’s spoof documentary—these rest stops for motorists are just as fascinating as their US counterparts. I can attest to this first hand.
Little Chef was founded in 1958 by London-born entrepreneur and caravan designer Sam Alper, inspired by the diners he had visited on a trip to the US. The first Little Chef was on Oxford Road in Reading, a prefab construction with just 11 seats. The chain expanded rapidly in the 70s and 80s, and in my time there were 439 branches across the UK.
While every other teenager I knew was applying for shop and bar jobs, I remember driving past the service station near my hometown with my mother and telling her that I wanted to work there. I was fascinated by the idea of receiving an endless stream of new visitors passing through each day. Three months into my job at Little Chef I was promoted to supervisor. I was young and part-time. There were women who had worked at the restaurant for years, fulltime, many of them in their 40s and 50s. And now I was running the show. What’s more, my best friend was a Little Chef waitress. I remember how the uniforms looked and felt to this day. Ill-fitting polyester blouses and pleated skirts worn with tan tights and black flats. A name badge featuring the iconic Fat Charlie mascot, and a red apron with a pocket for our order pads.
Our Little Chef was part of a service stop that included a petrol station, a general shop, a Burger King, and a Travelodge. The heart of the joint was a tiny room always thick with smoke where everyone would eat their staff meals. Gary, the cleaner, had worked at the service station for years. One of his jobs was to seal the ‘spy-holes’ that had been drilled into the doors of the women’s toilets. Gary was married to Tracey, who also worked at Little Chef. She had cropped bleached hair and smoked an unimaginable amount of fags per shift. Cheryl, a woman in her 70s, perma-tanned and always made-up, ran the shop and sold stacks of porn mags to lorry drivers. My sister, three years my junior, worked at Burger King.
We worked hard. An early shift was 7am until 3pm; a late one 3pm until 10pm. As a supervisor I would open up, lock up, and cash up. There was no way of predicting if a shift would be busy. On one occasion I cried after dealing with a very disgruntled, very aggressive customer who was upset about the time he’d had to wait for his meal.
On top of the regular flow of customers, motorway accidents would send streams of cars piling in: coaches full of school trips, families desperate to get home. A service station is not the type of place you’d expect to have regulars, but there were plenty at our Little Chef. The toast lady who came in at 10am every day and wanted two slices of brown toast, no butter. And the handsome coffee man who came in at 11am every weekday, occasionally on Sundays. He looked a little like Kevin Spacey. There was also the guy who would come in late at night, order half a bottle of wine with his dinner and spend ages filling out the Daily Mail crossword, but mostly he was perving on the staff. And he never left a tip. A transvestite would frequent about once a month. One time a young businessman left me his number on a napkin.
There were travellers who would order big breakfasts—washed down with coke in the morning and milk at night—and would use the communal showers. They often took full advantage of the cards we had on the tables that said customers didn’t have to pay if they weren’t satisfied with the food. There were people having affairs. This always puzzled me. Maybe they thought a service station was a safe bet? They would hold hands over the table.There were also those who would come in for their last meal. During my time two different women attempted to overdose at the Travelodge after eating at the Little Chef. Both were rescued just in time.
Lorry drivers were the best customers. They became our Little Chef family. They’d hang out on table 24 in the smoking section and were always the last to leave. Northern Nigel would buy us chocolates. He was a charmer. As Little Chef servers we had a code to observe. Every customer would be welcomed with the standard greeting: “Hello, welcome to Little Chef. Table for two/three/four? Smoking or non-smoking?” Laminated menus were distributed, crayons if there were kids. A free Daily Mail if they got there early enough. Once their drinks and food had been ordered, sides would be encouraged by a good server.
The menu was extensive. A glorious range of cooked breakfasts, our specialty, and a selection of other British fodder. Fish and chips, gammon and eggs, pies. Jubilee pancakes loaded with sugary tinned cherries, first added to the menu in 1977. Every item had a number that gets memorised by staff. It was pretty hard going at first, but now, over a decade later, I still have instant recall for some of them. 55 for the Olympic breakfast, 104 for toast, 17 for the Americana breakfast.
As a supervisor I’d cover the chef’s break, looking after the kitchen. At just under 5”4 I was literally a little chef. Most things were frozen. Sometimes you’d run out of space on the griddle, frying countless eggs and bacon rashers. I still have a scar on my left cheek from when a tub of baked beans exploded after I removed it from the microwave. Breakfast combinations were tricky to master, though I can still remember the components of the Olympic, a bestseller since 1994: 2 bacon, 1 sausage, 2 fried eggs, mushrooms, griddled tomato, fried toast, beans, and a handful of sauteed potatoes. Yum.
Food finished, bill paid, those much-loved lollies distributed, hopefully a tip left in the jar. Clearing tables was one of the worst jobs. Overflowing ashtrays, pea spillages. Everything was carried on a tray into the pot wash, which was a grim place at busy times. Overcooked bean juice was always hard to remove.
I realise now that my time at Little Chef was spent during the company’s heyday. In the years after I left, the brand would fall into decline due to a lack of investment, a tired menu, and increased competition. In 2006 it emerged that the business was losing around £3 million a year, struggling to keep up with rent payments and closing branches regularly. After going into administration, the company was bought out in 2007 by RCapital, a UK private equity group. Heston Blumenthal came later, with his TV show and fancy menu ideas. It didn’t help.In 2012 came the announcement that 67 more branches would close, bringing the loss of 600 jobs. My Little Chef was one of these. A Costa Coffee now stands in its place. In August 2013 Kuwaiti-based Kout Food Group bought Little Chef for £15 million, hoping to revitalise the brand. There are now 78 Little Chefs remaining.
The original article featured in Issue 3 of The Gourmand, published in December 2013. The online version can be found here.
Photography by Benjamin McMahon
From the Little Chef archive
Photography by Benjamin McMahon
Photography by Benjamin McMahon
Published in The Gourmand, Issue 3