Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

Archive for August 2017

Can Wimpy Have a Future to Match its Glorious Past?

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MOST PEOPLE over the age of 40 will have vaguely nostalgic memories of a time, long before global giants McDonald’s and Burger King arrived, when Wimpy was the one and only place to go for fast food.

Yet for the majority of today’s under 30s, Wimpy may not mean anything at all. What was once a mainstay of every town centre in the country has been shrunk to a rump of around 70 smaller restaurants in provincial and coastal towns, mostly in southern England, with Essex a particular hotbed.

Wimpy - Mr Wimpy

Mr Wimpy, the company’s mascot, who had a computer game named in his honour in 1984.

Those youngsters that know the name will never have seen its TV commercial or been to a children’s party where a staff member dressed as Mr Wimpy was the star attraction. Instead, they are more likely to think of it as a modest cafe along the seafront, in between the amusement arcade and the souvenir shop.

The original ‘Wimpy Grills’ was created in the USA by Edward Gold in 1934, and in 1954 he sold a licence to J. Lyons and Co to use the name in the United Kingdom. The first ‘Wimpy Bar’ in Britain was opened in 1954 at Lyons Corner House in Coventry St, London. It was originally a special fast food section within the more traditional Corner House chain of restaurants, but its rapid success quickly led to the establishment of separate ‘Wimpy Bar’ outlets serving only what we now call ‘fast food’ meals, blending American-style eating with a distinctly British image.

Three years later, Gold’s Chicago-based company formed a joint venture with Lyons called Wimpy International Inc, to operate the brand in the rest of the world. The company eventually grew to 1,500 locations worldwide, and Gold later sold his share to Lyons prior to his death in 1977, which formalised Wimpy as a British company.

Growth was rapid, and by 1970, Wimpy had 1,000 restaurants in 23 countries. In July 1977, the UK business was acquired by United Biscuits and Bakers SA bought the South African division of the company, splitting the empire up, for now.

One of United Biscuits’ first actions was to open ‘counter service’ restaurants in response to the arrival of McDonald’s in the country three years earlier, but Wimpy remained far more prominent than its slicker American rival on British high streets. Even in 1983, there were only 100 McDonald’s ‘restaurants’ in the whole UK.

The turning point may have come in 1986, which was a pivotal year in the rise of McDonald’s in the UK, for it was then that the first franchise-run McDonald’s opened in Middlesex. The same year brought the Happy Meal, and the first ‘drive-thru’ opened in Fallowfield, Manchester, which was quickly followed before the end of the year by others in Dudley, Neasden and Coventry. Wimpy was beginning to lose ground, and was no longer the obvious choice for people seeking a fast food fix.

At 33, I belong to the in-between generation. I can just about remember the days of the large town centre Wimpy competing alongside their more brash American rivals, until the sad, gradual process of their disappearance from the high street in the early 1990s.

The most significant development came about in 1989, when United Biscuits decided to divest its restaurant division, and sold Wimpy, and its other brands (Pizzaland and Perfect Pizza) to multinational giants Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo). At that time, there were 381 Wimpy restaurants in the UK.

Grand Metropolitan had acquired Burger King the previous year, which was already a major brand overseas, but only had 30 UK outlets at that time. It saw the purchase of Wimpy as an opportunity to aggressively expand the global giant’s presence in the UK, and soon began to convert the ‘counter service’ to Burger King.

In February 1990, the remaining 216 ‘table service’ Wimpy restaurants were purchased by a management buyout, in addition to 140 franchised locations outside the UK. These ‘table service’ restaurants in the UK were in locations considered less desirable by Grand Metropolitan and were often franchises, licensed to their managers.

The events of 1989 and 1990 may have been a major blow to the prominence of the Wimpy brand, but it was not a fatal one. Pushed out of the big cities, but not from the sea front, Wimpy stubbornly stuck to its format of fast food with a British twist, with menu offerings including the innuendo-inducing ‘Big Bender’ and the quaint toasted teacake. Ash trays remained present on tables years after smoking had been prohibited in most fast food outlets, right up until it was outlawed in enclosed public spaces in the late 2000s.

I recall one smaller table service Wimpy that lived on for a few years in the centre of Cardiff into the 1990s. My parents seemed to like taking me there during shopping trips, possibly as a sort of compromise between allowing me to eat fast food, while still being expected to use a knife and fork.

Wimpy - Horrible Logo

The misguided logo which took Wimpy away from its roots.

Some ill-devised attempts at ‘modernisation’ were made during the 1990s and early 2000s. The iconic ‘red and white burger’ logo was replaced by a red-on-yellow emblem with the ‘w’ in lower case. There was a gradual retreat from many of its locations as franchisees closed their restaurants, but Wimpy was far from finished and small, takeaway ‘Express Units’ became a growth area in theme parks, leisure venues and food courts.

A second management buy-out took place in 2002, and by the mid-2000s, the nearest Wimpy to my home was a small restaurant on the narrow high street of Caerphilly, a town best known for its world-famous cheeses and the home of Tommy Cooper. I ate there on a small number of occasions, and while the food was still of excellent value for money, the misguided attempts at ‘modernisation’ via the tacky rebrand meant lacked the magic of the Wimpy of old.

Wimpy Logo

Back to the future with the revival of the classic Wimpy logo.

In February 2007, Famous Brands, owner of the South African franchise, acquired Wimpy UK, reuniting the empire that had been split up in 1977. They adopted a ‘new’ logo, which was actually a return to the red-and-white ‘classic’ frontage of the 1970s and 80s. Famous Brands very gradually began to upgrade the remaining 170 locations in the UK to resemble American-style diners, though crucially, they retained the elements of the menu that made it characteristically British. Wimpy began to feel like Wimpy again.

The same year, I visited a Wimpy for what was to be the last time in nearly a decade. That September, I began my formal journalism training at Highbury College, Portsmouth, and on my ‘patch’, in Cosham High St, I discovered a Wimpy franchise, managed by Alex Lardidis. It had all the classic elements of a Wimpy, decent fast food at an affordable price, and yes, ashtrays on every table. It was reassuringly old-fashioned. It made for an interesting college newspaper piece, and I can clearly recall Alex telling me he was optimistic for Wimpy’s future under their new South African owners.

Sadly, the Cosham Wimpy didn’t last much longer for reasons I do not know. A ‘Wok ‘N’ Walk’ fresh noodle bar now trades where the Caerphilly Wimpy once stood. Yes, you read that correctly. The Wimpy restaurant in Caerphilly was so small that it’s just the right size for a takeaway.

A year after the Famous Brands takeover, just 16 Wimpy branches had been upgraded to the new, ‘retro’ look. Perhaps they were too slow in playing catchup during those years when coffee shop culture and a vast array of chains offering fast food from across the world were expanding rapidly.

By 2014, there were just 93 Wimpy restaurants left in the whole UK. Three years later, that figure is down to 70. To provide some perspective, McDonald’s and Burger King both have around 1,300 branches each.

In July this year, I visited a Wimpy just two months short of the tenth anniversary of my last visit. On this occasion, during a work/pleasure visit to London, I called in to one of the capital’s few remaining outlets on Streatham High Road, slotted between a Vodafone shop and a New Look clothes store.

Both the sign on the outside and the décor of the restaurant felt reassuringly familiar. The revamp which the South African owners began in 2008 had long since been implemented, helping to give it the ambiance of Wimpy’s golden age.

The Streatham franchise is owned by Kemal, an affable Turkish-Cypriot who moved to the UK from Paphos, Cyprus in 1975 to escape the tensions that had heightened following Turkey’s invasion of the island the previous year.

Kemal initially went into business with his older brother, who had bought the Streatham franchise from Wimpy International several years earlier, but he soon took sole control and replaced existing staff with family and friends.

When I arrived in the early evening, I was the only customer in the restaurant, but this turned out to be a mere lull between the afternoon and evening rushes. It remains open until 10pm every night because the demand is there.

This is a restaurant in rude health, situated in a diverse and close-knit area. It, and indeed Kemal, are very much a part of the community. The police hold a drop-in session there once a month, and local MP Chukka Umunna is a regular customer.

Kemal knows 80% of his customers by name. The loyalty is a two-way street. McDonald’s opened a branch on the same road in 1979, but it closed around 2002, a fact that brings a wry smile to Kemal’s face.

Wimpy Menu

The Wimpy menu I ordered from during my visit to their restaurant on Streatham High Road.

A TV broadcasting Sky News hung from the wall, and I scanned the menu, which, though enhanced since my childhood, still contains all the old favourites. I decided to order cod, chips (NOT fries) and peas, priced at a very reasonable £6.35, and a glass of Pepsi.

Within 10 minutes, Kemal returned with my meal, which more than lived up to its billing. Wimpy’s current strapline is ‘Enjoy Every Moment’, which is apt. I have eaten cod and chips in modern, fashionable restaurants and paid far more for the privilege, but I am not exaggerating when I say that the generously-sized and perfectly-cooked meal I ate at Kemal’s Wimpy that day was far superior to most of them. You’ll certainly struggle to find better value for money in London.

What sort of a future does Wimpy have in the UK? Famous Brands have done their bit, by both returning Wimpy to its roots and dragging it into the 21st century.

It appears that most, if not all of the 70 remaining Wimpy restaurants are franchises, meaning the onus is on the manager to ensure the food is cooked to the right standards, and that high levels of hygiene and maintenance are upheld.

Online reviews suggest there is a real inconsistency in the levels of customer satisfaction from one branch to another, with complaints ranging from dirty tables to meat turning up on a plate when a vegetarian dish had been ordered. On the other hand, reviews of some restaurants suggest most customers are as happy with their experience as I was in Streatham.

The sad fact is that in 2017, most of the population don’t live anywhere near a Wimpy. There are just four left in Scotland, three in northern England, and one in the whole of Wales (in Porthcawl).

It doesn’t have to be this way. Anyone who knows of an empty, suitably-sized outlet on any high street and has a spare £220,000 to spend on the franchise and set-up fee can open a Wimpy in their area. Kemal’s restaurant should be considered the blueprint as to how to make a Wimpy franchise a success, with his enthusiasm, attention to detail and engagement with the local community. With more people like him, Wimpy can, and deserves to have, a future every bit as glorious as its past.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 9, 2017 at 6:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized