Could public relations save Little Chef?

The Guardian  reports rescue attempts to stop the roadside restaurant chain of Little Chef going into administration.  As an exercise – what images come to mind when you think of this brand?  Probably the chubby chap in the logo, nipping in just to use the loo, wipe clean menus of sausages and sundaes, “Mrs Overall” staff? 

In public relations terms, these are not positive icons, and it is hard to feel more than a nostalgic “there goes another of my childhood memories” about Little Chef.  I often think about the brand and how public relations could help it when I drive past one of the 235 restaurants (that is a misnomer to start with). 

What are its values?  I think it could have made more of being family-friendly and accessible.  A revamp of the menu, staff-training and landscaping an interesting view out of the window would have been simple tactics.  They have some excellent locations and opportunities to counter soulless motorway services.

A simple PESTEL and SWOT analyses would have identified long-ago how it needed public relations to address trends.  I don’t mean marketing public relations in terms of getting media coverage, but in understanding how life is changing and building a reputation that still continued to claim a place in British cultural life.

 in posting on environmentalists targeting the German autobahn cites Timm Krägenow of the Deutschland Financial Times: “Derestricted driving on the autobahn is to the Germans what pesto is to the Italians and the baguette is to the French. No one in Italy or in France would dare to try and ban the cultural characteristics of their country.”

Little Chef epitomises Britain’s road-culture – we don’t speed silently along autobahns or stop enmass for Le Picnic as our French cousins.  Our long journeys still involve I-Spy and singing games, before the children cry “are we nearly there yet” and “I need a wee” (despite all the in-car entertainment systems).  At a time where there are demands for protecting British culture, surely it couldn’t be too late for strategic public relations to resuscitate the reputation of Little Chef?

[P.S. My favourite memory of Little Chef is with my family and friends near Cambridge 30 years ago when the manageress threw a wobbly, locked the doors and verbally lambasted all the customers – that was before the days of “was everything to your satisfaction, sir’!!]

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

14 thoughts on “Could public relations save Little Chef?”

  1. It’s reputation of expensive, not-very-apetising food could be revamped with a celebrity chef endorsement/cooking to launch a new look chain and the introduction of ‘munch miles’ like air miles where travellers could save the more they drive. If they introduced this for truckers, they’d all be beating a path to their doors.

    Also, they would have to have all the mod cons: internet access, male and female showers, etc. This would encourage the female car drivers/truckers to use their services too. When I was on the road, the lack of facilities for us was horrendous.

    And, you could get the guy who was on Dragons Den to install one of his drive-through truck washes at one or two locations? Hauliers love to keep their trucks clean, and a Saturday morning when everybody is back in the yard is usually the only time they get cleaned.

  2. I have never been to a little chef so I don’t know anything about it so my solutions might seem daft particularly if they have already been done.

    1. Have a petrol station situated next to the little chef. cars are more likely to stop for petrol.

    2. Have a park just outside the window for the children

    3. sell icecream near the park

  3. Jill – Interesting ideas – I think that services for truckers in UK are appalling, but as you indicate, to do the job correctly is quite removed from what Little Chef is about. Most of the truckstops seem to be locally run and spread by good word of mouth. My parents live quite near the French/Spanish border where there are some huge truckstop areas (where truckers need to put up as they aren’t permitted to drive in France on Sundays). However, they are weird places a bit like the old cowboy towns.

    Wayne – thanks for your thoughts. Many Little Chefs are adjacent to petrol stations – but ironically, the stations are now offering services that compete directly on the catering front. For example, BP stations often have a Little Bean cafe. Again, the supermarkets compete with cheap fuel and cafes – many of these open 24 hours a day now. Tough market.

  4. Yesterday’s Guardian reports that 15,000 ‘supporters’ lobbied last year when executives at Littlechef mooted a change to the logo; they wanted to slim down Fat Charlie.

    Who do you think these 15,000 people were, regular customers who read about the logo idea in the press? I’d be interested to know how they heard about it and how long it took then to unite as a force that was obviously to be reckoned with.

  5. I found this case study on the slimline campaign – http://www.romeike.com/upload/Documents/Little-Chef-case-study.pdf – which is interesting. It indicates 15,000 was the number of hits on a website – so not quite the same as a united force. Also this was clearly a PR campaign intended to stimulate debate so not quite a spontaneous uprising against the logo change. This is a good example in terms of evaluation for PR – generated coverage and public debate, but didn’t really seem to change attitudes towards Little Chef, hence problems continue.

  6. That is very interesting – another one for the file, thankyou.

    The name Little Chef conjours up images of the very wee man on the logo himself. And, what person wants to eat in a place where the logo delivers what it implies: an expanding waistline as a result of the food you will eat inside. You’re not even inside the door of a Little Chef restaurant but the logo itself is saying things about the kind of person you are: short and rotund.

    Does it need a complete overhaul, logo and all?

  7. I don’t hold the Little Chef personally responsible for the current reputation and some icons can be powerful brand figures – such as the Michelin man, Mickey Mouse, Jolly Green Giant (none of whom are thin). As you say, this is a recognisable character, but it is the associations with the real product that are negative.

    I think the “thinning” campaign was actually wrong as it focused on the problem with the company (and highlighted the rotund chap) rather than having first changed and gained popularity for a new menu etc. If Little Chef looked more like a Little Bean experience of fresh coffee, baguettes, cakes and tasty hot food – would we care about the logo?

    As you initially indicated, it is rather ironic at a time when chefs have become celebrity figures that the Little Chef didn’t become part of the movement. We never felt there were any chefs in a Little Chef that was probably more part of the problem – its doesn’t take Ainsley Harriott to make sausage and chips or toast a teacake.

  8. Very interesting. I gave more credence to the logo than I expect was the reality which was evident in the online survey that was done.

    Brands like golden syrup and betty crocker have not found it necessary to change their ad campaigns because they still work well, but the difference is that the products are still popular.

    On TV last night, can’t remember what channel, someone was extolling the virtues of The Broons Annual. It remains a popular read for some ‘because it is so far removed from what family life is like today,’ said one interviewee.

  9. I heard a survey on television earlier in 2006 which cited that most of the successful UK consumer food brands were at least several decades old, many nearing their century. There is something to be said for familiarity and continuity – but the product/service still needs to be relevant to our times. Shell is an interesting case study as the logo has evolved over time yet retains the core image. BP famously went through a total change which was supported by strategic refocus of the business. BA was less successful with its downplaying of the flag and adoption of multinational tail fins of course.

    Logos (visual identity) are only one aspect of the entire corporate identity (which is itself not necessarily the same as corporate image) – and so simply changing the visual identity may not be sufficient if a major issue needs to be addressed instead. Similarly, if the rest of the aspects driving an image remain contemporary, a classic logo may survive for many years unchanged and in fact, become much loved.

  10. I suppose organsational structure would play a big part as to whether management would listen to its PR team and acknowledge that major issues need to change rather than a quick PR fix to cover the cracks.

  11. higher management are the main problem for the position that littlechef has found itself in they should think back to the days of forte who built the business up using a technique of quick food with pleasant service instead of the stupid menu that cannot be cooked fresh and the staff that are not being trained properly in customer friendly service and appear to be only their for a wage with no respect or interest in the customer who after all without them they wouldn’t have a job ps. this dose not mean all but a high majority and increasing. this present direction has to change or littlechef will cease to exist

  12. Robert – you are absolutely right that management decisions are behind the failure of most organisations such as Little Chef to understand their core values and retain these, whilst adapting to changes that are necessary. Fresh cooked food and friendly staff should be minimal starting points for anyone in the catering business.

    Interesting to see also at the moment another icon of those times in Bernard Matthews which has focused more on processes involved in food production than understanding what customers want. Gone thankfully is the awful turkey twizzler, but can anyone be surprised that an organisation turning turkeys into something like that has other issues in producing nutritionally acceptable foods.

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