Outside, the red awnings and logo are familiar, although the "entrance" sign now reads "welcome". Inside, however, Little Chef is barely recognisable following a radical alteration. Sara Guild reports.
Earlier this year, Compass announced that the makeover of its Little Chef brand at two test sites was increasing turnover by 30% on an average investment of £250,000 per site.
Marketing director Jill Brown had set out to bring customers in during the evenings with a more diverse food offering, lights that dimmed to create ambience and a full alcohol licence. This was too tempting for the national press, which ran tongue-in-cheek stories suggesting husbands would sleep alone if they took their wives to a Little Chef for an anniversary dinner.
"Our target was the local market and Travelodge guests," says Brown in response. "We are on the outskirts of towns and villages, so those locals are a reasonable target. The romantic side of it was blown out of proportion. We want Little Chef Choices to be a destination day and evening."
Little Chef has 30 million customers a year, 20 million of whom Brown regards as regular users. Her aim was to increase the 30 million to 50 million by appealing to new target markets while not upsetting the regular users. "We have a strong following in the 35-plus age group, and at the 100 or so Little Chefs with Burger Kings we appeal to children and teenagers. We needed to appeal to 25- to 35-year-olds," says Brown.
Perhaps best known for its all-day breakfasts, Little Chef needed to broaden its food offering and revamp its interiors. Brown added three of Compass's other brands to the Little Chef Choices sites: fish and chips chain Harry Ramsden's, Ritazza coffee bars, and Upper Crust sandwiches. On the interiors side, Brown turned to interior designer and architect Tilney Shane to create a modern feel for a brand that launched in 1958.
"We wanted to bring more comfort and quality to the Little Chef experience," explains Marvin Shane, director at Tilney Shane. "We did not want something pretentious or a pastiche of a 1950s US roadside diner."
All aspects of the interior have been bespoke for the redesign and there is a simple elegance to the British oak and stainless steel used throughout. Dining room chairs are easy to clean and comfortable. Banquette seats offer a glimpse of the 1950s diner Little Chef once was, but also allow a clear view across the restaurant - something customers said they liked. Customers also told the design team that they didn't need to see all of the kitchen, so the open-view kitchen has been altered so only the chef is on view and not all the shelves and storage as well.
Previously the bright all-day breakfast atmosphere dominated, but now the lights are lowered in the evening and tablecloths added to create more of a high-street-dining ambience.
Tables seating four people did not accurately reflect the users of the restaurant. "We looked at getting a better balance between the groups and the sole diners," says Shane. "In the evenings a table to seat four felt awkward for those dining on their own." More tables of two have been introduced as well as round tables to accommodate groups who may be using the restaurant for meeting purposes.
There are comfortable seating areas for those wanting a coffee and croissant, and a bar area for those drinking. "The message is that everyone is welcome. You can just have a toasted tea cake and tea. It is not so formal as a restaurant," says Shane.
There was a conscious decision to keep Little Chef as the key brand. "In a big organisation sometimes there's a temptation to promote other brands above the old favourites and it doesn't always work," says Shane.
Now 12 Little Chef Choices have been redone and there are plans for a dozen more before the end of 2002 with between 30 and 50 planned by the end of 2003. All the revamped sites have seen the 30% uplift in sales experienced by the pilot sites at the 60-seat site at Marston Moretaine, Bedfordshire, and the 100-plus seat Little Chef at Pear Tree, Oxford, according to Brown.
And the increases are coming in markets that Brown was targeting. Most Travelodge guests have breakfast at Little Chef, but only 20% were using it in the evening. That figure has risen to 70% at the Little Chef Choices sites.
In fact there is a 70% increase in turnover in the evenings, mostly from the fish sales (up 300%) at Harry Ramsden's, and from the alcohol side, where sales have risen 1,000%. Brown acknowledges that both started from a low base point, but is nonetheless pleased at the steep rises and increased revenue. Take-away is another area contributing to the rise in sales.
Such a change was not simply cosmetic. Little Chef underwent a significant cultural change as well. The waitress service had always set it apart from other motorway services, but now it is a more personal service, with a maître d' assigning waitresses to tables. Diners can pay at the table, and according to Brown tips have gone up considerably. A waiter previously getting £10 a shift is now getting £50, she says.
"We have upped the pay rates in these sites and we are looking for flexibility in the staff. Word is getting round and we are getting preferred employer status in some of the local markets where we are now operating," says Brown.
Those with long memories may recall that Granada tried to revamp Little Chef in 1996, in a bid to target the 20s to 30s market. However, changing the brand red to blue at a trial site in Reading didn't work out and the project was abandoned. This time, however, Brown believes they have got it right.
"From the outside it is strongly Little Chef, but I wanted it to be radically different inside. If you went in with a blindfold on, you'd think you were in a trendy new restaurant. Our existing customers think it has moved forward," says Brown.
Total sites: 400
Annual diners: 30 million
Little Chef Choices
Brands on-site: Little Chef, Harry Ramsden's, Upper Crust, Ritazza
Sites: Eye Green, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire; Fontwell, near Chichester, West Sussex; Amesbury, Wiltshire; Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire; Dorking, Surrey; Fourwentways, Cambridgeshire; Cirencester, Gloucestershire; Penrith, Cumbria; Alcester, Shropshire; Pear Tree Interchange, Oxford; Marston Moretaine, Bedfordshire
Average investment per site: £250,000
Increase in sales since revamp: 30%