A revolution has taken place in the UK food scene over the past 10 years. Standards have risen, cocktail culture is resurgent and even department stores and shopping centres have upped their game. But have motorway service stations - the butt of more culinary jokes than the British Rail sandwich - managed to rise to the challenge of a consumer with higher expectations?
Peter Harden, co-founder of Harden's Restaurant Guides, believes they are beginning to. "There is still the feeling that they offer poor value for money, but there are good examples of an all-round quality offer," he says. "Welcome Break Gordano [on the M5] is particularly good. With an increasingly savvy customer on the road, services need to raise their game - and there are signs that they are."
One of these signs is the recent flurry of brand tie-ups, including Roadchef with Costa Coffee and Welcome Break with Starbucks. But will this make any real difference when people are deciding where to stop? Are consumers loyal to specific sites, or are brands really the key to grabbing drivers' attention?
Jonathan Doughty, managing director of Coverpoint Catering Consultancy, which managed the international development of the BP Wild Bean Café, thinks brands are vital. "Our audits back this up," he says. "I was recently at the Roadchef Norton Canes on the M6 in Staffordshire and, within one hour, 30 vehicles had stopped and bought a Costa coffee."
But Doughty warns that fast-food branding is on the wane, and he believes coffee's "lifestyle in a cup" approach is the current leader. Its importance was recently underlined by Welcome Break's franchise deal with Starbucks, despite the fact that the services operator had registered a 28% year-on-year rise in sales for its own Coffee Primo brand.
But does this new enthusiasm for coffee show that drivers' habits are changing? Are customers staying for shorter periods to "grab and go"? Rod McKie, chief executive of Welcome Break, says: "In short, yes. Our most recent research suggests the average customer dwell-time stands at about 19 minutes, but there is every indication that it could fall further. To that end, most refreshment options are available to take away."
Welcome Break is one of the three big hitters in motorway services operations and, like its rival, Roadchef, is owned by a private equity group. Welcome Break is one of Bahrain-based Investcorp's brands, while Roadchef is owned by Japan's Nikko Holdings. The third brand, Moto, is owned by Compass but looks likely to fall into private equity hands soon, as part of the SSP sell-off.
Paul Kelly, corporate affairs director for Compass Group, says: "There are four private equity bidders left and, while Moto is a strong brand, it is capital-intensive, which would suit a private equity group."
Should consumers be concerned that the big three motorway options are likely to be in private equity hands? Tony Horton, managing director of Tricon consultancy, thinks they should. "The track record of equity players in this market has not been good," he says. "There is a concern that prices will rise, and there are specific issues inherent to motorway services - such as staffing and a consistency of offer - that private equity companies need to be aware of."
Motorway service areas were recently surveyed by consumer magazine Which? and consistency of offer was a principal factor. "We see no reason why all service stations should not meet the standards of the best," says inspector Neil Fazakerley. "For example, Moto won the overall award for the best chain, but its outpost in Trowell near Nottingham scored very low. Why is this one of such a low standard, and so different from many of Moto's other venues?"
Part of the problem, argues Doughty, is that roadside operators have such diverse real estate. "Some spaces are very well adapted to a coffee or sandwich shop," he says. "In other cases, they have to shoehorn them in."
He also believes that operators will increasingly offer short-term leases, perhaps of five years, enabling them to mirror the ability of restaurant chains to tweak their offer as consumer tastes change.
It seems other roadside operators are starting to wake up and smell the coffee, too. Little Chef recently said it planned to drag the brand out of the 1950s - a move that could see its iconic Charlie logo binned. Development director Nick Smith says: "We would not change our core restaurant operation, but we do see the value in providing the ‘stop and go' option of [café brand] Coffee Tempo!."
If service stations are to stay on the right road, they need to provide an offer that is both consistent and cutting edge across their estates - cutting edge in roadside terms, anyway, which seems to mean it's 10 years behind the high street.
Consumers are looking for a healthy, accessible offer in a clean and comfortable environment. If operators get it right, drivers may just plan their stops more carefully and not pull over simply because they need a loo stop or fill the tank.