A taste of success

It's been two years since Popham Little Chef was 'Hestonised', but now the television cameras and national newspapers have gone, is it still a runaway success? Carole Varley went back down the A303 to find out

There’s something about the Little Chef in Popham. The first time I visited, I bumped into a colleague of an old friend of mine – a food writer who, coincidentally, had been invited to the starry televised launch of the roadside restaurant after its makeover by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal in late 2008. Heston’s quest had been to breathe new life into the brand and it was aired in a Channel 4 series, Big Chef takes on Little Chef, in late 2008, the year the chain also celebrated its 50th anniversary. When I subsequently got in touch with my friend to find out what he thought, he said that he was most impressed with the food, but did wonder what would happen once the television cameras had moved on. Then, the 40-minute queues for service were snaking round the side of the building.

A year onSo, here we were again, more than a year later, to see if the restaurant was still as popular. This time we didn’t have to wait to be seated(although the restaurant manager Zoe Rugg says that they still have queues at weekends) and this time I bumped into the builder who had just mended our roof. It’s a small world at the Popham Little Chef, it seems.He was there with his six-month-old son, also Robert, and his building partner John Third, and they were both waiting for their Olympic breakfasts to arrive (these are mega with almost two of everything). I was a bit puzzled because Robert lives locally at Micheldever. So what was he doing there? “Oh, we come every Friday,” he said. “Just because we love the breakfasts.”So, it’s still something of a destination restaurant then, which must by now have much more to do with the food than the hoo-ha. And, it turns out it isn’t just the locals who come regularly, either.  One such is Dorothy Harvey from Frome in Somerset, who works in London and drops in every Friday on her way back from work in a residential school for the visually impaired. Usually, she says, she has the Olympic breakfast, but today she was just making do with the bacon buttie. Dorothy first came because she had seen the television programme – “initially you couldn’t get in the car park”, she says – but now she comes because of “the very friendly service, and because the food is a lot better.  You always know what you are getting. I would much rather stop here than on the motorway.”

Back againOther regulars include elderly couple John and Linda Churchill of Hayes, Middlesex, who stop once a month for breakfast on their way to Salisbury to visit relatives. “This is definitely the best of all the Little Chefs”, says John.  “None of the others can really compare.”  As well as the food, what the couple also relish is the friendly service. “Everyone is so warm,” says John. “Even if she’s in a meeting, if she sees us the manager will break off to come and ask us how we are. We’re greeted like long-lost friends. It really cheers us up coming here.”Waitress Vicky Cumby agrees. “I used to work in retail before, but this is much better, such a bubbly atmosphere,” she says. “We always have a good giggle – and you get to meet new people every day. Gordon and Tana Ramsay were in not long ago and Eric Clapton came in with some of his friends.” (Gordon had the Olympic breakfast and Eric a steak and ale pasty, she confided.)  Staying localManager Zoe, who has been running the restaurant for eight months, is a trained chef herself with AA rosettes under her belt and long experience running restaurants, nightclubs and hotels. She was headhunted for the position and hadn’t then seen the television programme. “I was instantly impressed and very interested in the job, though,” she says. “This was right up my street. This was far superior to the sort of food and service you usually get at roadside restaurants. Everything in the breakfast is griddled, rather than fried; the eggs are free range; the meat for the burgers is sourced from local Laverstoke Park butchers; the bacon is outdoor reared in Wiltshire; salt is rock; tomatoes are thyme infused.”Which is, of course, exactly the way Blumenthal wanted it to be. “Oh yes,” says Zoe. “We have absolutely continued in the same vein, keeping the same suppliers where we can. Everything has to be consistent to maintain the standard.”

The Heston wayLisa Butten who is the regional manager for Little Chef – she also looks after the two other ‘Hestonised’ restaurants in York and Kettering – says that the experiment with  Blumenthal had been “phenomenally successful. The feedback we have been getting has been fantastic.”So much so, that the restaurant appears in the Good Food Guide for the second year running, of which Zoe says that they are “exceptionally proud because this we’ve achieved ourselves, after all the media hype.”  They still get people phoning up to reserve tables (which Zoe will do outside peak hours and for the larger parties) and increasingly these include business groups, who will appear for breakfast, take out their laptops for a few hours, then order lunch, while Zoe and her team keep them topped up with coffee. “What we offer can compete with many other facilities,” says Zoe.

Out with the oldHazel Davies, from St Albans, has been coming about four times a year for the past seven years on her way to Devon and says that she has “noticed a big difference from the old days. I like the new menu, I like the way they’ve decorated the restaurant.”  Today, she was travelling with her friend Gillian Seagrave, who hadn’t visited a Little Chef since she was a child. “I am very impressed,” she said. “The service is excellent.” Claire and Dave Handley were on their way home to Latchley, Cornwall, after a holiday in Egypt (a rather traumatic one, as it turned out, for not only were they in Sharm el Sheikh at the time of the fatal shark attack, but in the water at the time – “It really was like something out of Jaws,” said Claire, “with whistles blowing and people screaming.”) Now they were both really looking forward to a steadying cup of tea and an English breakfast. Dave, a diver who regularly travels abroad, says that he usually stops off at Popham because of its “easy parking, an hour away from Gatwick, and because you know that you are going to get good food, all freshly cooked. I don’t know why they didn’t do this [Hestonisation] ages ago,” he adds. One young couple, Emily Akeroyd and Matt Lyle, who were travelling from Croydon to Plymouth for a weekend break, had never been to a Little Chef before and neither had they seen nor heard about the television programme. In fact, they had only stopped off for a cup of tea, but changed their minds once they had seen the menu and plumped for chips and grilled chicken from the specials board. So what did they think?“Yes, next time we’re travelling this way, we’ll definitely make a point of stopping here,” they said.And so will we. Having polished off an Olympic breakfast, Scottish mussels and a melting belly pork salad between us, my photographer and I even managed to squeeze in a shared portion of the unusually light banoffee pie before we went on our way, literally full of the knowledge as to why the Little Chef at Popham is still proving to be a big draw.

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