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Motorway malaise: is it terminal?

12 July 2004
Motorway malaise: is it terminal?

Before the AA launched its guide to motorway service areas last month, RoadChef's Sandbach South on the M6 in Cheshire enjoyed the same anonymity as most motorway stops. Now named and shamed as Europe's worst, with the survey's only "very poor" rating, however, its catering services have attracted a lot of unwanted attention.

Sadly, a visit to the site proved it to be little more than motorway travellers have come to expect. An open-plan eating area offers a self-service canteen and Costa coffee outlet, with a small Wimpy next door. Chairs and tables are clamped to the floor, prices inflated and staff uninterested.

My visit to the service station started with a trip to the hot counter in the self-service canteen. On offer were viscous baked beans, soggy vegetables, roast potatoes, a choice of pies and the main attraction - an all-day big breakfast.

While I waited in the queue - and it was a long wait - an elderly couple returned their meals because the food was cold. A helpful staff member produced a temperature-testing gauge, agreed with their verdict and offered replacements, but one opted for the safety of a salad instead. At £6.99 for a plate of brown shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato cubes, chopped cucumber, rubbery-looking cheese and coleslaw, this wasn't cheap, but at least it was meant to be cold. "We always complain now," said one of the couple. "It's still better here than at Little Chef."

When I finally arrived at the front of the queue I asked the staff member whether he could recommend anything. My request was met with a look of alarm mixed with disdain. "I don't eat this," he said. "Not even a taste?" I ventured. "No."

I decided to plump for the chicken and leek pie which, although expensive at £6.99, was generous in size and tasted fine. The accompanying chips were chunky and firm but the green beans were more grey than green and long-overcooked. Dessert - a jam and custard pastry - was disappointingly tasteless and rather soggy.

The tables were relatively clean - although not so in the Wimpy - and staff were quick to clean away the rubbish. The service at the Costa outlet was efficient and friendly and the toilets were also relatively clean, although flushes and taps proved temperamental. In short, Sandbach offers only the minimum in catering, toilets and retail, and nothing more.

My visit was cut short by a duty manager who was none too pleased at the press snooping around. When asked what she thought of the AA's verdict, she replied that company policy prevented comment.

Does it have to be this way? A trip to the Reading West Moto station would suggest not. Here, the food offering proved similarly expensive but of a far higher quality and choice. An effort to create a more comfortable environment with decoration, a children's play area and free baby food went a long way to making the overall experience more enjoyable.

Customers' Verdicts

John Scott, 50, sales manager
What he ate:
Brian Turner's All Day Breakfast sandwich (£3.79); pastry (£1.82); coffee (£1.89)
What he said: "The sandwich is exactly the same as you would get in any other service station across the country. The coffee is fine but the pastry was a little bit warm and had started to melt. The biggest problem at Sandbach is the staff - it took me five minutes to get served because they were discussing their personal lives. I work in hygiene auditing and it's not good here. The staff are not clean-shaven and their nails are dirty, as are their overalls. About 50% of the cups had stains on them, showing the dishwashers aren't up to scratch. That said, I could take you to worse examples than this."

Keith Trickett, 55, company director
What he ate:
Costa small coffee (£1.75) and raisin Danish pastry (£1.65)
What he said: "The pastry is not bad for a motorway station but it's a bit insipid. The service was fairly quick and pleasant. Motorway service station food is much better on the Continent. In Germany and Austria you find better quality and better prices."

Justina PATEL, 13, and Christina Patel, 17, from San Francisco
What they ate:
Spicy chicken sandwich meal (£4.99 from Wimpy)
What they said: "I didn't like the sandwich because I don't like fake meat - it tastes very artificial. The fries were OK, but McDonald's are way better. This is our first visit to a Wimpy and overall it's really bad and really expensive. It's also dirty - the chairs and tables are sticky."

Price Comparison
Sandbach High street Moto (Wimpy) (Burger King)
Chicken burger meal £4.99 £4.30 (Wimpy) £4.99
Quarter pounder with cheese meal £5.49 £4.30 (Wimpy) £4.99
Tuna mayo sandwich £2.99 £1.40 (M&S) £2.99
Medium latte £2.29 £2.19 (Costa) £1.89
Regular soft drink £1.70 £1.50 (Costa) £1.79*
\* with unlimited refills

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