Little Chef – this is why journalists turn cynical

News broke over the weekend that the chief executive of the UK restaurant chain Little Chef has left the company. A few months ago I wrote about my less than joyful experience of eating at a recently revamped Little Chef outlet. There’s no need to rehearse the whole story again here. In summary: the company had hired the Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal to advise them on updating and improving their menu. A TV camera crew had recorded this work and produced a rather upbeat and feel-good programme about a miraculous turnround at the company.

I was sceptical, especially after a somewhat disappointing meal at the flagship restaurant. I concluded my column by saying that the company would not be able to hide the truth from customers for long.

A couple of weeks ago I had another frankly horrendous meal at a Little Chef (do I ever learn? No I do not.) This branch was only another 40 miles or so up the road from the flagship one. They served me possibly the worst scrambled egg I have ever paid money for.

Now we learn that the CEO is out. Is the company’s heart really in this Hestonisation process? Does it have the competence to pull it off?

Journalists turn cynical when they are spun a line, and assured that something is the case when manifestly it is not. In spite of the reserves of goodwill that many Brits still have towards the old Little Chef brand, the company seems unable to make it work. The company says its loss-making performance has been turned round, but I see little evidence that they have improved. Funnily enough, on the other side of the A303 at Popham, Hampshire (where the first Hestoned Little Chef is located) sits a perfectly serviceable cafe that does decent sandwiches and hot meals in an unpretentious way, charging a fair price. It was quite busy when the Stern family dropped in on our way back to London on that last road trip.

If I may quote myself from last November – and what’s point of having a blog if you can’t do that? -

“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.”

I stand by every word of that.

About the authors

Stefan Stern writes a column on Tuesdays on management. He is winner of the 2010 Towers Watson award for excellence in HR journalism, and has previously won awards from the Work Foundation and the Management Consultancies Association.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of Business Life, the FT's management features section, and a former editor of the Mastering Management series. He joined the FT in 2000 from Prospect magazine

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