The closure of Little Chef is news that all right thinking petrolheads have taken rather badly. Gone will be the days where one can get an Olympic Breakfast en route to one’s destination, replaced instead by bland chain coffee shops and a surfeit of Greggs.
It’s as if the whole road network is being turned into a motorway service station – and the impersonality which that brings. As someone who spends a lot of time on the road, I spend a lot of time in motorway service stations, and I find that it’s difficult to keep track of where in the country you are. Stafford looks like Corley, Birch looks like Donington Park; they all have the same mix of fast food chains, newsagents, micro supermarkets and an arcade with driving games, though quite why you’d want to stop your car, go inside and drive a pretend car is a mystery to me.
That sense of impersonality leaves you feeling lost – there is no real choice any more for the motorist, and the loss of Little Chef feeds into that. Instead of ordering a reheated burger and some pencil thin chips, or an overpriced coffee and a croissant, Little Chef allowed you to sit down and enjoy hearty transport café grub at the side of the road like people have done for the past seven or eight decades or more. And with each one that closes, another part of that friendly history has left us for good. A nation of Happy Eaters will soon be miserable.
To commemorate the passing of a British institution I thought I should go to my nearest Little Chef and pay my last respects. But when I got there, I kept driving down the A1 to the next junction, turned round, and went back the way I had come. And parked in the car park of the real transport café opposite.
You see, in its own sense Little Chef has been part of the problem. By homogenising the transport café and spreading its wings across the UK it has done its bit to save us from the circle of hell reserved for the coffee shop and the burger bar. But as it has done so, it has to a degree lost a sense of its own identity – it has ceased to become a transport café and has become a chain in its own right. The hotplate and the fryer behind the counter sit in cynical defiance of everything a proper café ought to represent, and the prices are enough to make any self-respecting trucker stand agape in disbelief.
We won’t miss Little Chef as much as all the pundits think – because at the end of the day, it’s no different to Starbucks or Burger King. It’s yet another way that the weary motorist can feel lost en route, another assimilated eatery that could be the same in Coventry or Colchester. And we still have the dear old transport cafes that Little Chef sought to emulate. As I sat in Kate’s Cabin with my egg and chips, looking across at the Little Chef that progress was soon to extinguish, I felt no sense of remorse. This third way – the oldest way – is the best way to eat on the road. Real food cooked in real pots and pans in a real kitchen by a real chef. Who should be overweight in an ideal world – because you should never trust a thin chef. A small slice of roadside heaven – and roadside individuality to boot.
And long may it continue.