Little Chef takes the flat white coffee to roadside cafes

 

In one of the more imaginative coffee-related moves by a national fast-food chain, the Little Chef roadside business has added quality coffee to its roster.  Not only has the brand committed itself to making coffee in the accepted coffee-house manner, with trained baristas using real espresso machines, it has placed on its menu one of the most difficult modern drinks – the ‘flat white’, which was for some time the ‘in’ drink of the Soho espresso set, and which is widely recognized as a drink which requires a certain amount of skill to produce properly.

The move continues Little Chef’s recent work in upgrading its entire general image. The chain is still widely thought of as it was in the 70s, with its curtained windows and wooden tables, and its slightly-doubtful menu – some of us will never forget the Little Chef attempt at a prawn cocktail. 

Most recently, Little Chef has undergone a quite vast re-formatting. Having had three or four owners in as many years, it went through a ‘pre-pack’ buyout and closed sites ruthlessly – the brand which once had 230 sites now has only ninety.  In an attempt to gain menu credibility, it then hired Heston Blumenthal to work on the food, and has now brought in Lavazza to change the coffee.

Lavazza, of course, has a track record in this – it is the brand which transformed the coffee business within the J D Wetherspoon empire, by which the pub chain moved quickly to sales of over half a million hot beverages a week.

The Italian brand has now been hired by Little Chef’s new chairman, Graham Sims, who took over late last year. He was the man who introduced the Wild Bean Café concept to BP roadside sites, and he observes that while the idea of doing roadside coffee properly has been already achieved on the motorways, nobody has yet ‘brought it to the A-roads’, the traditional Little Chef trading grounds.

To achieve this, he says, Little Chef’s attitude to coffee has had to change radically.

“I worked at Little Chef in the seventies for 25p an hour,” he told us. “I will always remember the burgers and onion rings, but can’t remember the coffee at all! Historically, we have always had too bad a coffee offer – even our cafetiere coffee was scooped badly, and at one point we went to soluble coffee, which was sacrilege.”

He did not consider the option of bringing in one of the ‘big three’ coffee chain brands to manage Little Chef’s coffee, commenting candidly that he thought only one of them could do it, and suspecting that particular one to have ambitions in other directions anyway.  He thought about the big Italian brand Illy, but decided they were ‘too specialist’, and settled on Lavazza after being impressed with the work they had done for Wetherspoon.

In that project, Lavazza adopted a ‘top down’ training policy, in which the main board were first to be educated in coffee – the logic of this was that when senior board members understand a product, they are in a better position to formulate a meaningful strategy. At Little Chef, a similar system has been put in place.

“I am now a CEO who has been trained!” Graham Sims told us. “We did our training in layers – we have nine ‘cluster’ managers, who are trained to train, and they had deep training across several days at Lavazza.  This was followed by a second phase immediately we installed the machines, when we got down to it the minute they were in and began serving some very good coffee. Then ninety more people went for intense training at Lavazza, and we have committed to continuing with half-day sessions from Lavazza, and sending them new staff.”

A remarkable addition to the Little Chef menu is the flat white, an unexpectedly ambitious move for a ‘good food on the go’ roadside café.

The flat white is the drink which has become associated with the new breed of ‘artisan’ coffee bars, starting mainly in Soho. The drink is generally considered to have originated in Australia or New Zealand, which were recently the fashionable coffee countries, and both Starbucks and Costa rushed to put the flat white on their menus when they realised that it had become the credible ‘in’ drink. A flat white uses a double shot of espresso in probably no more than a 6oz cup, and  the milk has to be particularly skillfully steamed and delivered from the jug, to give a rich creaminess but without the inches of airy foam which have come to be thought of as the typical coffee-house beverage. 

It does certainly take some skill to produce a good one, which is why it might be thought surprising to see it in a Little Chef, which could have taken the easier option of ‘push-button’ idiot-proof coffee machines. 

“We tried to decide where to draw the line in our new offer, and we decided that for credibility, we couldn’t ‘not do’ the flat white,” explains Graham Sims. “So, for our launch of Lavazza, we already have one ‘flat white person’ ready at each site, and while at the beginning, some of our staff may not get it perfect, we’re on a journey.

“What we do know is that we can already do the core coffee menu well, and as we begin this, our attitude towards our coffee is feeling good!”

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This news story was first written by Boughton’s Coffee House for the Caffe Culture news Portal, the news source for the café trade, which can be found at http://www.caffeculture.com/

 

 

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