Little Chef – big PR mistake

Back in December 2006, I asked “Could public relations could save Little Chef?” – after watching last night’s Channel 4 programme Big Chef takes on Little Chef, the answer is no.

Like celebrity chef, Heston Blumenthal, brought in to design a new menu, for me, the Little Chef brand is a faded childhood memory.

My own recommendations two years ago (which were available free of charge via this blog) included investing in core values by being much more family-friendly and accessible.  At present, even the “flagship restaurant” (what a misnomer) featured on the programme lacks soul.  Based on the A303 at Popham in Hampshire,  I drive past it at least twice a week – but I’ve only stopped there once some eight years ago.

Little Chef CEO, Ian Pegler’s interview with the Guardian reveals his belief that all the brand needs is media coverage.  This is what I said it did not need, until it had rebuilt a reputation based on a solid place in British cultural life.

Heston seemed to grasp my recommended strategy, although his initial menu choices clearly were designed to fit his own brand image (and the needs of dramatic television).  Pegler, slated this as not being sufficiently “outside the box” or “blue sky” to get him the “free publicity” that he understands public relations to be about.

Dehli Mix quite rightly observes:

…it doesn’t make for good PR when you call in a celebrity chef and know you’re being watched by millions of viewers on TV and then slam the phone down because the consultant you hired is asking you for gross profit figures because he needs to know how much you have to play around with!

Pegler is quoted by the Guardian as saying “I’m a great believer in PR-ing the business. It is cheaper than advertising.”  As I’ve muttered under my breath a zillion times in marketing meetings, PR IS NOT A VERB.

But Pegler is a 1990s man and it shows – he seems to believe that having worked for brands that were successful in that decade makes him a publicity expert.  Exploiting charity links with royalty might have generated headlines, but they are yesterday’s chip paper and didn’t alter public perceptions one bit.  I really doubt Pegler has ever worked with truly successful strategic public relations experts.

There is a great advert on television at the moment to celebrate 25 years of Virgin Atlantic.  It epitomises the spirit of the brand with a funny nostalgic look back to 1984.  Virgin clearly knows its values and these come over loud and clear.  Little Chef, like the Wimpy bar in the background of the Virgin ad, is lucky to still be around.

The Little Chef website is dated and doesn’t even acknowledge the new celebrity designed menu (so far as I can see).  Certainly, the company has a loyal customer base as the comments at Channel 4 reveal.  But what they are asking for – which will also appeal to new customers is tasty, inexpensive, British cooking in a clean and pleasant environment with staff who are friendly and helpful.

Little Chef dates back just over 50 years (to 1958), being launched at the same time as the first British motorway.  As I wrote back in 2006,

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?

Sadly, I don’t believe that the television show and its associated publicity, nor the efforts of Heston Blumenthal’s new menu will do that.  As with Woolworth‘s, I think it is inevitable that Little Chef will be nothing more than a “do you remember” brand.

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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.

23 thoughts on “Little Chef – big PR mistake”

  1. More than anything, I think this a case of CEOs who think they understand PR and media communication and in fact do anything but! What better publicity could you get than a rare(ish) TV chef with the stature of Blumenthal offering to turn your brand round, a full piece in the Gruaniad and 48-sheet posters around the UK. And what does he do…say that it would be great to get media coverage whilst biting the hand that feeds!

    OK, not everything has worked all the time for celeb chefs – Jamie couldn’t quite do it in Rotherham, Worrall Tompson (or was it Rhodes) couldn’t deliver for the NHS because you couldn’t feed a sick flee on the budget provided, but neither could you fault the PR or fault them for trying.

    It’s sad when an organisation has disappeared so far up its own management that it can’t see the obvious. I have been into a Little Chef recently. The food is generous (although not necesarily wholesome), but the atmosphere and the customer service remains in the 1960s. Shame really.

    Heston, don’t waste your time or talent!

  2. PR – and the show – might give them a short-term boost in the arm, but unless there’s a strategy to follow up – including, as you point out, getting what the customers actually want then it won’t be a long-term boost.

    The show appears to have been the whole strategy and not part of the strategy, which is what it should have been.

  3. Heather – I couldn’t agree with you more. Doing PR without something genuine and real to talk about is like building a house on sand.

    But here’s the thing: I’m watching the programme (on my Media Center PC) as I write this comment. Pegler comes across as insincere and cynical. It’s really cool that you posted this comment and that I read it ‘in real time’ watching the programme – it helped me make sense of what I was watching.

  4. Matthew – great to see how you are using the multi-media re such stories. This raises another point about such programmes and the impact of being sensational. As FiftyFourFoodMiles writes, the show generates publicity and is talked about, So now people can follow up and watch the show online if they missed it initially – and if it is great, that’s valuable additional reach, but it also provides a negative legacy in this case, I believe.

    Anyway, I just drove along the A303 back from a meeting in Surrey – and sure the Popham site appeared to have many more customers than the next Little Chef (not sure why there are two within five minutes drive on the same road – another lack of strategic thinking?). Great success maybe? The fact is the 2nd site has zero customers and the Popham appeared to have four tables of people. Hardly bursting down the doors are they?

    Even “free advertising” needs to generate positive outcomes.

  5. Well, according to Ian here, “You have to get to episode three to see the full picture.” I can’t wait!

    And yesterday’s episode was even more ridiculous – the fact they blatantly copied the menu is just stupefying. I guess if it wasn’t for TV any consultant would have quit immediately.

    Oh and thanks for the link back to my blog🙂

  6. Pranay, An interesting thought, a friend said to me this morning that he’d have more respect for Heston Blumenthal if he had walked away and not come back (as we presume is tonight’s conclusion). Personally, I’d like to think that if a client lied to me in the way Pegler seemed to do, then I’d resign the account immediately. Life’s too short to work for morons like him.

  7. Ian Pegler was the sort of “Blue Sky” “Low Hanging Fruit” twat that didnt have a clue how to run a business s came out with the “outside the box” Comments that so many clueless people did in the 80’s & 90’s to cover up the fact that they didnt have a clue. Blumenthals menu was just what Little Chef needed. However if Pegler thinks that the PR alone will revitalise the brand he will be sadly dissapointed. I know I for one would not go into a little chef if Hestons menu was not rolled out. I simply couldnt give my money to that Pegler Prat.
    The man is simply to stupid to realise what is needed.

  8. Dan – last night’s programme did make me feel much more like stopping at Popham.

    From the outside, apart from the new signage (which is noticeable but doesn’t really scream that things have changed), you cannot see any difference that draws you in.

    I might stop by when I come back that way on Saturday as you make a good point about trying for myself. But it’s not just about Popham – but about evidence that Little Chef understands what needs to be changed.

    From yesterday’s show, one of the most powerful things was the way in which the staff were enthused by the changes – clearly there is potential to overcome the poor service and attitude gaining another win from good food. But I still doubt that the management under Pegler understand the power of their people needs to be unleashed.

  9. hi i have an exam on Monday about little chefs strategic management.

    as you seem awear about little chifs situation, could you plz help me within the following:

    i need some info about their strategic position, strategic choice and strategy into action.

    many thanx

  10. Good luck with your exam – however, I’m afraid that I don’t have any knowledge of Little Chef’s strategic position, choice or action. You need to use the tools that you will have been taught on your course to determine this – such as using a PESTEL, SWOT and Porter’s Five Forces to look at the competition. Personally, I think the Heston Blumenthal tie up was not part of a strategic repositioning as it does not appear to have been extended to any other part of the chain. Therefore, it reflects a poor marketing/PR strategy in terms of being only about generating publicity, not reviewing the business and how it is positioned with customers or other influencers in any meaningful way.

    1. hi Heather,

      thanx for your prompt reply

      im going to quote this to my anwer as a conclusion maybe if you dont mind:

      ”Personally, I think the Heston Blumenthal tie up was not part of a strategic repositioning as it does not appear to have been extended to any other part of the chain. Therefore, it reflects a poor marketing/PR strategy in terms of being only about generating publicity, not reviewing the business and how it is positioned with customers or other influencers in any meaningful way.”

      hope other viewrs could help as well

      thanx again

  11. little chef

    hi Heather,

    I have an Assignment on little chef and i was wandering if you could tell me who is LC main competitors. What is their strategy, I’m struggling to find any information regarding LC. If you can help me that would be very helpful, many thanks Toby
    My deadline is next Monday

  12. Toby – I cannot really help with your assignment. You need to consider what LC offers and so determine who the competitors would be. If you take into account that it is primarily offering somewhere to stop on journeys, then investigate other options for this need – eg service stations, fuel stations with catering, etc.

  13. So, the Kettering and York restaurants have been successfully revamped on the Blumenthal model and Popham has now made it into the Good Food Guide 2010.

    Does my suggestion (22/01/09) still seem ridiculous?

  14. Alastair – did I say your suggestion was ridiculous?

    But taking 7+ months to roll out the model to two additional restaurants is getting behind the change in strategy though. How many decades will it take to change the lot at the rate of one every 3-4 months then?

    Interesting that the BBC report on the Good Food Guide entry for Popham cites a new manager (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8226948.stm) – wonder what happened to the one there over the change featured in the programme?

  15. No you didn’t. I was referring to the way I’m clearly swimming against the tide. One glimpse at the comments posted here or on any other blog or news story you care to Google on ‘Pegler, Little Chef’ demonstrates that!

    Agree absolutely that it is early days, and painfully slow, but the idea that Pegler could, one day, be credited with returning the Little Chef brand from the graveyard to a business success, doesn’t today seem quite as ludicrous as it might have done back in January.

  16. I just can never understand how people can eat such absolutely horrific food. It looked to me like awful bacon, that patty looked like a bad day at mcdonalds, the strangest looking gunk – uhhh and i just couldn’t bear the thought of eating scrambled (battery) eggs from a poach, whether blumenthal’s sous vide or the microwave version. People are very undiscerning and it has nothing to do with money.

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