Little Chef: The Reading restaurant that launched a national chain

American restaurants and fast food outlets have long entered the UK food scene, but one came much earlier than the golden arches of McDonald’s or Burger King and KFC. Little Chef has become one of the most popular food chains in the country – and the very first store has opened here in Berkshire.

Stopping at a Petit Chef during a long road trip to or from vacation was one of life’s little pleasures. The chain had 439 restaurants across the UK at its peak, having started with a small restaurant on Oxford Road in Reading.

Inspired by popular diners in America, Little Chef opened its first store in 1958 in Berkshire. The very first branch only had room for 11 seats before the chain grew over the years.

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Most of its later restaurants were on major A roads across the UK, as well as at motorway service stations, making it the perfect place to take a break from travelling. The very first branches were prefabricated buildings, but from the mid-1960s stores began to be built of brick and each could accommodate around 40 customers.

Less than a decade after the first Little Chef opened, there were 25 restaurants across the country. This jumped to 44 branches in 1970, then 100 two years later.

The chain was best known for its Olympic Breakfast, a classic full English version, as well as Jubilee Pancakes. In 1976 there were 174 outlets across the UK.

The Olympic breakfast at Little Chef was a favorite among customers

In the 1980s, Little Chef’s parent company acquired all of its rival Happy Eater restaurants, leading to its peak of 439 restaurants in the late 1990s. But things took a turn in 2005, when its new owners announced the closure of 130 underperforming restaurants.

This reduced the number to 234 at the time, as a number of restaurants had already closed. A year later, the channel was taken over.

Between then and now, various attempts to revitalize Little Chef have taken place but with little success. Even Heston Blumenthal’s intervention in a 2009 Channel 4 documentary was unsuccessful.

In February 2017, Euro Garages purchased the Little Chef locations from its former owners, Kout Food Group. As a result, Little Chef branches began to be replaced by Starbucks and Greggs, and the number of Little Chefs fell to 66.

By 2018, every Little Chef restaurant in the country had either closed or rebranded. In October of that year, those which had not yet been converted were closed and Little Chef was lost from memory.

The retro feel of Little Chef was a big part of its charm. But unfortunately, this has also led to its downfall as a lack of modernization has seen the chain fall behind its rivals.

Do you have fond memories of Little Chef and the Oxford Road branch? Share them with us at [email protected]

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