In the news in the UK press over the winterval holiday has been the plight of the Little Chef 'restaurant' chain, and its rescue by a private equity group for what is thought to be around £10m.
Now Little Chef is thought of as a great British institution. It was founded in Reading in 1958 by a caravan manufacturer and grew steadily but surely through the 60s, 70s and 80s, presumably through the investment of various institutional owners. And then came the decline: passing from one owner to another; bits being added and chopped off here and there. But still retaining a substantial chain of outlets and considered to be a 'much-loved brand'.
In 2002 Little Chef was aquired, together with the associated Travelodge chain of hotels, by another private equity group for £712m. They struggled with it and then sold off Little Chef in 2005 for £52m. In 2006, £60m was raised by a sale and lease-back arrangement on a large number of its sites.
So, by my reckoning, in 2005/2006 the business was worth £112m (or at least that's the amount of capital that had been invested in it). And within the space of 12 months it's therefore lost 91% of its value. That sort of decline takes some doing. I wonder why?
Perhaps it has to do with that 'much loved' brand. Because if you were asked to sum up the Little Chef brand in one word, that word would undoubtedly be 'dismal'.
It starts like this: you set off on a long car journey to the further reaches of the UK; you go beyond the reach of the motorway network; you reach that point where a refuelling and comfort break is called for; you drive for another 20 miles and then you'll eventually come across a Little Chef (which will be next door to a petrol station).
You'll later come to realise that this is the high point of the break - because it's very easy to park. You'll then go inside to get something to eat.
And it's at this point that you'll realise that there really is a difference between the French and the British - you see, the French have cuisine, whilst the British have catering. And this is what Little Chef is really all about: catering. Dishes cooked and served up by accountants.
Now it's thought that Little Chef started to go downhill in the mid 90s when competition in the form of McDonalds, KFC and Burger King began appearing on roadside sites. But the very opposite is the truth: because Little Chefs are deliberately sited where there isn't (or doesn't appear to be when you're driving) an alternative. And so for the last 50 years they've been trading on the fact that they could serve up what they wanted to sell us. And giving the customer the illusion of choice in the process.
And what did the customers think about this? Well, in 2004 they got really upset. So upset that over 15,000 of them got together and signed a petition. About the quality of the food, you might think? No, it was about the so-called 'logo' - Fat Charlie:-
You see, the Little Chef management had proposed having him redrawn for our 'health-conscious' age to make him appear slimmer. And, for the first time, the customers found a collective voice. And, for the first time, Little Chef took notice of its customers and ditched the whole idea.
It tells you an awful lot about the British attitude to food and eating out, and what we're prepared to put up with (no wonder the French look down their Gallic noses at us). But a lot about the British attitude to design and what we're prepared to put up with, as well.