Big lessons we can learn from Little Chef

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Hard work and relentless attention to detail: that’s management for you. Talk is cheap. Visions can inspire, for a moment or two. But without graft – and competence – things go wrong. Any business, no matter how successful, will struggle if it forgets this. There are no quick fixes for organisations that have big commercial and cultural problems.

That is the lesson to draw from the story of Little Chef, the 51-year-old British roadside restaurant chain. For generations, these little cafés, with their red and white signage, have formed a familiar part of the UK landscape. “Fat Charlie” is the diminutive chef in question, smiling out at travelling businesspeople, families and lorry drivers from the side of motorways and A roads.

At its peak, in the 1970s and 1980s, Little Chef enjoyed a dominant market position. But you did not seek out a Little Chef for a thrilling culinary experience. You went there for a reliable cooked breakfast, for plaice, chips and peas, for something acceptable to tired and hungry children. It worked.

What happened? Change happened. Customers got more sophisticated in their tastes. Cheaper competitors offering US-style fast food won new fans. And our Little Chef? He fell asleep at the griddle pan, offering an increasingly tired-looking selection of relatively pricey meals.

He also fell prey to financial engineers. Between 1970 and 1996 Little Chef was owned by Forte. But in the wake of one the most spectacular takeover battles of the 1990s, Little Chef became part of the Granada group. Over the next 11 years, the company had four different owners, before going into administration in 2007 with losses of £3m. Its current owner is R Capital, the turnround specialist.

So why bother telling this story? Because Little Chef is currently going through a potentially transformative relaunch, following advice from one of the world’s most distinguished real-live chefs, Heston Blumenthal. It has all been played out in front of a television film crew at a specially chosen Little Chef site. Last week, the second documentary covering the company’s rebirth was shown, and the management lessons in it were striking.

The fact that a Michelin-starred chef has dedicated time to a struggling restaurant chain tells you something about the affection in which Little Chef is held. But nostalgia is part of the problem here. The business’s current boss, Ian Pegler, worked for the company in the early 1990s and, as the cameras revealed, he has struggled to grasp how sad Little Chef’s offering is.

The fish in the fish pie is “cooked to buggery”, according to Mr Blumenthal. Little Chef, he observes, is “hardwired into spending as little as possible on ingredients”. Even after he has shown the kitchen staff (and Mr Pegler) a better way of doing things, standards drop once he is no longer there. Real chips are replaced by the oven-baked variety. Elegant sauces lose out to instant gravy granules – “an interim solution”, according to Mr Pegler. Presumably no pun was intended.

The superchef puts his foot down, and at the end of episode two all is well. The prototype branch of the reinvigorated restaurant chain wins the unexpected accolade of inclusion in the Good Food Guide 2010.

So, they all lived happily ever after, then? Not so fast. No sooner had the film crews gone away than your columnist, and family, rolled up at the now celebrated branch of Little Chef just off the A303 one lunchtime a couple of months ago. And our experience was not quite the joyful one that Mr Blumenthal had.

Service was poor. The waiting staff were distracted and inefficient. The food, which had delighted Mr Blumenthal only a few weeks earlier, was mainly pretty bland. This was not what you expect from a new Good Food Guide entrant.

Signs of that hardwired approach to costs already reasserting itself? Perhaps so. More important, here was more evidence that success in business is down to getting the basics right. Supervision, that unfashionable term, is vital.

Management is hard work. Attention must be paid. Change can only be driven through by well trained and motivated staff, who understand what they are supposed to be doing, and believe in it.

What happens at branches of Little Chef when Mr Blumenthal and his camera crew are not there and the hype from the series dies down? That is the question that matters. Customers will find out.

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