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Serve better food or get out of the road

06 April 2006

In response to the news article "Motorway giants in fight to change ‘outdated' laws" (Caterer, 30 March, page 8), I was amused by what RoadChef chief executive Martin Grant said: "Outdated and unreasonable constraints prevent motorway service areas from providing services that meet modern customer requirements."

What exactly does this mean? With monopoly trading locations, and a vast and constant flow of customers, what possible constraints are there on servicing these lambs to the fast-food slaughter?

The most obvious constraint I can see is self-imposed. The abysmal food offered at all service areas appeals only to the burger-and-fries brigade. Of the other hot meals available, most rely on the fry-up tradition or a lump of pastry and slop - not forgetting the displays of congealed "hot" food that seem to be a speciality.

Many other countries find it much easier to serve eager motorists with interesting food, so why is it so hard to do the same here?

Last Sunday, on the way up from Heathrow, we stopped at a service area and tried a Little Chef. We ordered omelettes, only to be told that the freezers had packed up so there were none. No one, it seemed, could manage the complexity of combining eggs to produce anything other than the fried option.

It was hilarious. I felt like asking if I could demonstrate how to make a simple omelette.

But Little Chef is not the worst offender; at least they do prepare some food from scratch, albeit very basic and dull. The fascination of eating Kentucky chicken (although it is tasty), accompanied by a box of sad little fries, sitting in a picnic chair at a hospital canteen-style table, consuming a murky liquid sold as coffee, is about as appealing as having one's teeth pulled.

I believe the burger experience is similar, though I regret - or maybe I should be proud - to admit that I have only once in my life consumed a McDonald's burger, back in 1977.

More branding can't compensate for or disguise providing the worst eating experience imaginable in a developed society. Shopping centres are gradually realising that not everyone heads to the fast-food outlets, and it isn't hard to see that better-quality food has revived the fortunes of pubs all over the country.

It's a wake-up call that, at last, the UK is appreciating food on a level with our Continental cousins, and outlets that service this demand are flourishing. Motorway services could surely follow this example.

Philip Clutton
Old Yew Tree Inn, South Wingfield, Derbyshire

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