Lawrence Wosskow: Moto is next on the menu for the new owner of Little Chef

The Interview: Chairman, The People's Restaurant
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The Independent Online

Lawrence Wosskow doesn't mess about. The ink is barely dry on his £52m takeover of Little Chef but already the self-confessed adrenaline junkie is plotting his next deal. A £1bn-plus move for the motorway service stations owned by Compass.

"If I pull it off there's a fair chance I'll become the Philip Green of catering," he says with characteristic exuberance. It's a big ask but it speaks volumes about this relatively unknown entrepreneur, who made so much money three years ago from selling his shopping centre food court business that he took "early retirement". At 39.

"I wanted to spend more time with my kids, Hannah and Toby, before they got to an age where they weren't really interested in me anymore.

"Retirement" turned into a three-year holiday that took in the Gumball Rally, a real-life version of Hollywood's Cannonball Run, and saw him dabble inhorse racing. But once his business partner and friend, Simon Heath, was released from a two-year contract with the restaurant business the pair sold in 2002 for £25m, he decided it was time to go back to work.

"It was January and Simon said, 'Right, shall we look for a business to buy?' Given my background it had to be either a retailer or a caterer," he tells me from his stationary car on the M1. (He is stuck in the usual M1 traffic.) "I said, 'What about Little Chef?' And lo and behold, one and a half months later it was for sale." Yesterday it was sold outright to the duo who believe they can rescue what they see as a national institution.

Putting up all the equity for a £52m deal ­ "I've put a significant amount of my wealth into Little Chef because I believe in it more than all the other things I've done" ­ would keep most people busy for at least a month or two. But Mr Wosskow confesses he's on the verge of another deal that "makes Little Chef look like Toy Town".

It doesn't take much probing to get it out of him: it's Select Service Partner, Compass's £1bn business that owns the Moto chain of motorway service stations and is the world's biggest operator of airport concessions. It also provides sustenance to just about every famished commuter in the country via its Upper Crust and Café Ritazza railway station outlets.

If Mr Wosskow can pull it off ­ and it is early days as Compass has yet to even issue the sale memorandum ­ it would be déjà vu for the tubby chef: Compass sold Little Chef and Travelodge, the budget hotel chain three years ago to the private-equity group Permira. Mr Wosskow is talking to possible backers, "potentially venture capitalists, potentially an individual". He admits SSP's 3,000 outlets in 25 countries "sound frightening" but says there are "lots of ways of dealing with the European businesses ".

For the 42-year-old chairman of The People's Restaurant Group, the company set up to acquire Little Chef, buying Compass's concessions business would be mission accomplished. He explains: "The reason I could start Out of Town Restaurant Group was because Compass was ignoring shopping centres." His first conquest was the Trafford centre in Manchester; one day he was selling his Bradwell's ice-cream from a barrow in the shopping mall, the next he was running the shopping centre's food court. Bluewater followed, then Meadowhall in Sheffield.

"The next step was to get into stations and airports, but we couldn't because Compass has 'inside-the-act' leases with all the railway station landlords, which means that it can't be moved. The airport guys didn't want to know because Compass was such a big business already so we were snookered. "

He then got to know Welcome Break, one of Moto's two rivals, very well because the motorway services chain almost bought out his company. " I've always thought it would be fantastic to take on something like Moto or Welcome Break. The Great British public don't get what they want from motorway service stations in England. They are expensive and the quality and the service are poor."

Just like Little Chef. Founded as an 11-seater snack bar in 1958 in Reading, the red-and-white greasy spoon has become the butt of countless jokes. It was infamous as John Major's favourite place to recharge while out on the road. In the dying days of Compass's ownership, the chain was treated to a half-hearted makeover. There is only so much a sprinkling of red-and-white checked tablecloths can add to a place.

Everything, from its overweight icon, to the over-greasy sausages it dished up served only to put off customers. Those who did stop to refuel only relented because on many roads the jolly white chef has a monopoly on catering options. Mr Wosskow knows this because he has spent the past six months driving round the country, eating at 200 of the 240 Little Chef outlets and interviewing more than 1,000 customers.

For starters, Mr Wosskow plans to slash the price of the chain's best-selling dishes, halving the price of a plate of fish and chips with a mug of tea to £4.99, and serving up a full English fry-up, with tea, for the same price. A new menu next month will focus less on breakfast and more on "proper, healthy meals like lasagne and pie of the day". Breakfast will remain at the heart of the business, but instead of making up more than half the menu ­ "even in the evening you can get a mixed grill, which is basically breakfast" ­ it will be more evenly balanced with other meals.

There will be no seared tuna or sushi but instead plenty of healthy sandwiches and jacket potatoes. Mr Wosskow intends to copy the Wild Bean Café concept set up recently by BP to sell decent coffee and fresh sarnies to starving motorists. Indeed he has just poached its entire top team. But the fat chef will stay. "His former owners tried to slim him down last year but there was a public outcry."

Mr Wosskow, who owned the Loseley Ice Cream business, the Free Spirit surfing brand and helped build Café Rouge into a national chain, likens the run-down assets he buys to the businesses that this week helped Mr Green to pay himself a £1.3bn dividend. He admits the high street's Midas man is his top role-model but says although they have often been at the same event they have never met.

Mr Wosskow ­ who incidentally was the youngest ever buyer at Marks & Spencer aged 23 ­ thinks he still has plenty of time to emulate his 53-year-old hero's achievements. "He hasn't even retired for three years."

Given his appetite, maybe Mr Wosskow could become a household name yet.

Food for thought

Age: 42.

Family: Married to Julie with two children, aged 12 and 13.

Education: Left Silverdale School, Sheffield in 1981 with 10 O-levels and 2 A-levels.

Career: Joined Marks & Spencer after school. Took break to go travelling. In 1998, bought Loseley Ice Cream, selling it a year later to Thayers. Still runs Bradwell's Ice Cream, which he bought in 1992. He was a co-investor in Café Rouge in the early 1990s. Owned Free Spirit, the surf brand for two years before selling it to Millet's. Started Out of Town Restaurant Group in 1999 with a few outlets in Manchester's Trafford Centre.

Interests: Travelling, football, horse racing and golf.

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