Massage in a bottleneck

Today's buzz words are `the environment' and `service quality' `We want people to leave with a pleasant memory of our loos'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Free stress relief? Classical music? Natural light? Can this be... a motorway service station? Esther Oxford on Granada's new approach It had been a gruelling trip. One of those very British experiences: a gigantic motorway traffic jam on a precious hot day. For 18 miles we'd crawled along, waiting for someone, anyone, to decide Enough is Enough, do a U-turn and shoot off down the inside lane. But no one did. So we just sidled along quietly - simmering tempers in simmering heat. Windows wound down. Arms resting in the sun.

At last the service station appeared. But this, it seemed, was a service station with a difference. The place was huge, with an eerie space-station feel. Advertising balloons bobbed up and down in the breeze. There was a sense of space and light, a coolness in the air. Surrounding it were sweet-smelling acres of freshly ploughed earth. Parents and babies were sitting on patches of lawn. The sun was out. It looked almost pastoral.

Granada's state-of-the-art service station between junctions 11 and 12 of the M4, which opened on Good Friday, is a far cry from the motorway "rest areas" of past years.

The M1's Watford Gap, dating back to the early 1960s, still sums up "pre-revolutionary" British service stations - foil ashtrays, stewed tea, lino, and food on the floor. At Heathrow, there are condoms and stockings tossed on to the kerb. Toilets that one can smell from the moment a foot lands inside the building. Disinfectant, smelling of hospital, is sloshed all over the floors.

But this is the "old school" of service stations. Today's buzz words are "the environment", "service quality" and "product quality". The service stations of the Nineties take a holistic approach: at Granada's new venture, travellers can enjoy a free massage, learn stress-relieving and energising exercises. Then why not have a meal while listening to the "soothing sounds" of Reading Symphony Orchestra, bathed in sun from the huge, dome-shaped sky-light above the central eating area?

Competition accounts for the change of thinking. Since the de-regulation of service stations three years ago, companies have had to vie with each other for planning applications to build new sites. There have been 50 official applications since deregulation in England. Just eight have been approved - one at a site near Stafford on the M6, sold recently to Mobil for a rumoured £10m. Commuters can expect Italian-style waitress- service cafs, more play areas for children, betting shops, shopping malls and "food halls". Business people and children are the new catchment group to be pulled in on the nets.

Meanwhile, between junctions 11 and 12, four male masseurs were waiting in the entrance hall to soothe away those angry knots in the neck and shoulders. Then there was a choice of venue: the loos, the telephones, the mother and baby room, a shop, an amusement arcade, a Burger King and a restaurant.

"All our customers go straight to the loos when they come in," explained Dominic James, 30, general manager. "Until recently service stations assumed that the restaurant was the place were most people headed. Consequently they made an effort to make it look nice. But we've identified lavatories as an area everyone visits. We've done them up nicely. We want our customers to leave with a pleasant memory of our loos."

The next most popular place is the restaurant. Each employee has to complete four days of customer training before being allowed "on stage". "We get company executives here and we get truck-drivers here," Mr James explained. "We have to make sure that our staff choose the right words."

It was midday. I went in and joined the queue for breakfast. The only language needed at this particular point of Granada's state-of-the-art service station outside Reading, was: "Sausage? Bacon? Egg? Beans? Tomato? Fried bread? Chips?" "Look, I'm not interested in whether it's a nice day out there or whether the weather is hot," one disgruntled customer told the food server. "Just give me my breakfast - sharp like."

The smiles on the faces of the staff never flinched. Not even when a flabby, tattooed father ordered seven breakfasts to be freshly cooked - each one made up of a different combination of foods. Not even when a mother bellowed across at her children: "Sprite or Cola! Oi! Cola or Sprite?"

I did my best to provoke. "I didn't order sausage," I told the waitress, after she delivered a steaming plate of breakfast to my table. "I am so sorry," she replied and immediately dashed off to put some bacon there instead.

I relaxed. From my table, I could sit back and watch the 360-degree circle of activity around me. Flowing in, fresh from the car park, was a constant stream of harassed travellers. It was just as Mr James said - all attention focused on the bathrooms. But when they re-emerged and looked around it was with a sense of wonder. "It's like a hotel, here," said one girl, slightly overwhelmed.

Gillian Warren, a market research interviewer and Terry Warren, a bank clerk, were tucking into hamburger and chips. Mrs Warren said she liked the locks on the doors; she couldn't see them breaking down. "There is nothing worse than a toilet door that won't lock: having to sing on the loo to make sure no one comes in or, even worse, having to keep your foot against the door." Her daughter, a long-haired sultry thing called Caroline, agreed: "Nobody is gonna rip that lock off with a crow-bar," she said.

The family were on their way to Wales. Caroline, 17, wanted to come in because of the Burger King. "It's better than Little Chef," she said, mouth full. "Little Chef is crap. Salad in the middle of winter. Omelettes that taste micro-waved." Her mother joined in: "Yes, all you need is a mixing bowl and a frying pan. I mean, what is wrong with cooking up a fresh omelette?"

On the table next to them, a young Spanish couple were looking less impressed. "In Spain the service cafs are smaller, more homely. They are run by families," said Nuria Durandez, 24, a graphic designer from Madrid. "This place is too crowded. The food is so-so. Nothing special." Her boyfriend, Ramon Perez, 24, an economist, chewed silently on his chicken korma. He perked up a bit when told about the free massages by the doorway. "A girl, I guess?" he said, hopefully. No - four guys. "Oh," he said.

Meanwhile the manager was doing the rounds. "How did you enjoy your meal?" he asked. "Well the yolk was raw, the bacon soggy and the beans watered down. But I liked the fried bread and the fresh tomato," I replied. He looked momentarily put-out. "We do use Heinz's baked beans," he said. Then: "I'll check the kitchens now and make sure that the cook does not make the same mistake." He strode away purposefully.

Granada services sold, in one year:

11.5 million litres of Coca-Cola

7.2 million pots of coffee

4.4 million Burger King burgers 3 million sausages

1.53 million packets of crisps

650,000 ice creams

493,000 Mars Bars

400 million litres of fuel

They used 20,000 miles of loo roll and 21 million serviettes

Visitors played 15 million amusement machine games

Granada motorway service stations: the history

The first Granada station opened in 1963, on the M1 at Toddington (Britain's first ever service station was opened by Trust House Forte in 1961, in Newport Pagnell).

Today, Granada operates 20 service stations in the UK (there are 57 in total).

70 million travellers visit Granada services each year; 5-6,000 are expected daily at the new services over the Easter weekend.