I posted last year on the demise of roadside eaterie, Little Chef, after in went into administration. I asked the question, "Shouldn't some brands just die?". The brand was well known, but negative associations (cheap, unhealthy, plastic decor, old fashioned) were seemingly hard wired into peoples' brains.
Well, the new owners seem to think there is life in the brand yet, and have created a prototype new restaurant at Popham services, just off the M3.
Heston Blumenthal, chef at the world's top restaurant, The Fat Duck, has revamped the menu. Favourite dishes such as the Olympic Breakfast have been upgraded, using better ingredients and improved cooking (Wiltshire-cured bacon, free-range eggs). And new dishes have been added, such as Hereford Steak and Abbott Ale Pie and Haagen Dasz chocolate fondue.
Ab Rogers, daughter of uber architect Norman Rogers, has done the interiors. Out has gone the cheap and nasty plastic. In comes diner-style red formica and banquettes.
After reading an eccstatic 4* review in the Sunday Times Style magazine ("The meal was so good, it’s going to be really hard to go past Popham now without stopping."), I went to check it out. And here's what I learnt...
1. To re-invent, be radical: hats off to Little Chef for really going for it with the interior design. If you do want to re-position your brand, its not good tweaking. The place did actually feel like a US diner, not the cheap and nasty motorway cafe of old.
2. Prototype to learn from experience: one of the key principles of innovation for me is to bring new ideas to life. By trialling the new store concept in one place Little Chef can learn of the investment pays back, and then roll out.
3. Upgrading the customers: the thing I thought was really interesting was the people there. Back in 2005 one insider was quoted as saying: "The only people who visit Little Chef are the elderly and people who want to use the lavatories." Well, during my visit at least half the people were pretty upscale folk. And the rest were average families with kids. This better class of customer helped give the place a much nicer feel.
4. Build the buzz: the choice of Heston Blumenthal was inspired, as it has created bags of buzz about the brand. I think a lot of the customers I mention above were curious, like me, to check the place out after reading about its Heston-isation.
5. Great sizzle, OK sausage: the one thing that did disappoint me, especially after the gushing Sunday Times review, was the sausage itself. The cooked breakfast I had was OK, but not great. The sausage looked cheap and was a bit under-cooked. The single rasher of bacon was rather sad and limp. And with coffee and an orange juice the bill was £8.95, so not cheap.
So, a very interesting attempt at brand rejuvenation. As the Sunday Times reviewer said, they have tried to "Stay true to its roots, reviving all your nostalgia and making it relevant and up to date again." But I'd recommend checking it out for the interior design, not the food. And unless the sausage is as good as the style, I still doubt that Little Chef has a long term future after the initial buzz dies down.
We'll find out more this week when Channel 4 will screen a programme, Big Chef, Little Chef, tracing Blumenthal's involvement with the brand.