Friday, September 21, 2007

Into the autumn and back into Little Chef?

Well, the summer of love is over.

We tried to stretch it out a little longer, but the torrential rain and cold we encountered yesterday left us in no doubt that it had come to an end. And although it is not yet autumn officially, it's safe to say that the weather has other ideas. But enough of moaning about the weather, the new season brings new fashions, new colours, new ideas and new focus. And, autumn is definitely my favourite season, watching the leaves turn from green to red to brown. Living near the countryside makes it even better as you can appreciate the season fully.

But I digress, back to the land of marketing and today, the land of Little Chef. After a well-documented struggle over the last few years and the chain being saved by private equity company RCapital in January this year when bankruptcy had been looming, it seems the company could be heading into a new chapter once again. Jamie Oliver, who first brought his simple, no-nonsense style of cooking to our screens, then brought the restaurant fifteen which took unemployed teenagers and taught them to be chefs, and more recently tried to revolutionise school dinners in the UK, is now considering making a bid of £20 million for the company.

Why you may ask? Well, funnily enough he is considering filming another reality show, this time based around revamping the menu of the “struggling but iconic chain” as Brand Republic puts it. And given this iconic status, I presume, Oliver does not plan to change the name or logo, only the cafe interiors and menu. And, if you haven’t already guessed, the idea is to introduce healthier food and fresher ingredients to the menu.

Jamie may be up against competition however, as only last month Gordon Ramsay offered to rescue the chain on his TV series ‘Kitchen Nightmares’. The Benetton family were also keen to purchase the chain, however their plans to rename the chain under their Autogrill master brand meant that RCapital refused the offer. Apparently the name and logo have to stay, this is non-negotiable.

So what will be the fate of the chain? It seems clear that many people still have a great affection for the brand, but they fail to vote with their feet and actually visit the cafes. I would have to admit also that I’m one of those people. My brother and I also have a long-running joke when we are talking about someone attractive that we’d “take him/her to Little Chef” – long story, but we read in a magazine many years ago that a guy they were interviewing for some ‘eligible bachelor’ type of feature would take a girl to the restaurant to give her the perfect date. As the years have gone on however, the Little Chefs close to me have all but vanished and I tend only to happen upon them when I’m taking a road trip somewhere, so it would have to be quite a long date.

But, before I go off on yet another tangent, I’m sceptical about Jamie Oliver ‘saving’ Little Chef. After school dinners he began to be a figure people either loved or hated, and much of the hate came from the young children who wanted to eat junk food and their parents who wanted to let them. And, many of these same people are the ones who have been choosing McDonalds or Burger King over Little Chef when they stop off at a service station already. So will Oliver’s takeover of the company really make that big a difference? Also, if he takes the chain so far away from the original concept and ethos of the brand, he may as well change the name because the rest won’t ring true.

But perhaps I’m being a little hard on him. Let’s see what happens first, whether he will actually bid for the brand, and if so, what he can do. Undoubtedly though, it’s sure to make for some interesting television.



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