Catering at motorway services
The catering at motorway service stations has a long and unpleasant history, which is covered under How To Design A Service Station. This page provides a little more detail on a few key points.
Most service station operators see themselves as operators of popular coffee and fast food brands, a category known as QSR. These are usually operated under a franchise agreement, where the service station provides the staff and gets to set its own prices.
There are some notable exceptions to this: Extra do not run any of the food brands which are provided at their services. Sometimes they are ran by the brand directly, but often they are ran by another operator. On the other hand Westmorland do run their own food brands, but they do not use any existing chains, and instead focus on their own menu of locally-sourced products.
A list of all the catering names available at each service station, and the ability to search for one, is provided in our database. Complaints about food at a service station should normally be directed to the operator, or to the company named on the receipt.
More Than Just Burgers
See also: Quick service restaurant
While the majority of service station customers are interested in the famous fast food names, the larger services have been trying to introduce a little variety. Chozen Noodle and El Mexicana are examples of this, while Tossed was the first brand to make motorway food healthy. Asian fast food restaurant Chow is especially interesting because it was specially created by Moto to fill a gap in the fast food market.
Having completely moved away from long-form dining, Welcome Break have now brought it back to their busiest services with established restaurant chain PizzaExpress. The theory is that while most people want to eat as quickly as possible, some families are willing to hang around. Moto also trialled an established restaurant, Harvester.
The quandary for service station operators is that while most customers now want as quick a meal as possible, in the mornings breakfast is still popular. Partnering with the likes of Harry Ramsden's and Harvester means this can be accommodated within the existing menu. At the other services, the remains of the self-branded restaurant have been used to provide this, usually with smaller counters and vastly reduced opening hours. Some now alternate between being a breakfast bar in the morning and an unrelated brand name in the afternoon.
Food To Go
Food To Go is the name for a new style of food retailing that became common during the 2010s. This puts the focus on an increased range of food that can purchased in ordinary shops with no need to wait for it at all. Obvious early examples are the sandwiches and soft drinks that made up many High Street 'meal deals', but this has grown to include hot food counters, salad bars and ranges of vending machines creating coffee, milkshakes and other types of drink.
Convenience stores found inside petrol stations and motorway service areas have invested heavily in their food to go ranges, and now often dedicate a large section of the shop to it. Stores such as M&S Simply Food have moved away from focusing on groceries to be taken home, to snacks that can be eaten in the car.
The consequence of food being served under established brand names is that there is usually a minimum quality that can be expected. If the food is not up to scratch, customers will start complaining to the brand who's name is being sullied.
The very first motorway service areas were famed for their fine dining. This trend was at least partly a trick: service stations paid rent to the government based on turnover, so a more luxurious service station would have higher prices, offer the government more revenue, and therefore be more likely to win the contract. The phase was short-lived, and low revenue soon caused quality to be compromised. Meanwhile, lorry drivers were happy to be served 'cheap and cheerful' greasy-spoon style food in the transport café.
In truth, only the first handful of these fine restaurants were ever profitable, so they were not around for very long. In 1963 we were promised "some of the finest catering in Europe" on the M6, but by 1967 The Guardian was calling these restaurants "shoddy and dear". A 1969 government report found that snack catering was already replacing restaurants, and operators were already scaling back their work.
One problem was that Britain's motorways were very slow to open, and they weren't carrying the long distance or upper class traffic that had been envisaged. Only a tiny percentage of customers actually needed a meal, and once the novelty had worn off, it soon became clear that those who did want to eat, wanted a more basic meal. Some inspectors felt that customers who would eat an expensive meal were put off by the alcohol ban. Fortes, who took catering seriously, switched to a menu of frozen dishes (ravioli, bolognaise, braised beef, curried beef and rice, and chicken chasseur with mushroom sauce), and apparently nobody noticed the difference.
Ministry of Transport on snack catering, 1969
The menu was no longer a problem, but motorway service areas were having to cut corners to save costs, and that was showing in the unpredictable quality of their expensive and unexciting food. By the 1970s, kitchens had been stripped out and replaced with microwaves, with predictable consequences.
Deregulation in the 1980s was supposed to encourage new ideas, and these mainly took the form of fast food concessions. New leases had allowed waitress service and transport cafés to be removed. The supposed innovation truly took hold in the late 1990s, with many established brand names being placed together in large food courts, while any traces of any other dining option were removed for good.
There would now be a lot of choice, but it was mostly aimed at families and day-trippers, a market known as "transumers" - people who eat on the go but don't necessarily buy food you could eat every day. These franchises aren't to everyone's taste, but they tend to be consistent with what they serve.
With fast food and coffee succeeding in getting people in the door, one last-ditch effort was made to cater for the sit-down market, with large restaurants changing to tiny counters that had an emphasis on the freshness and quality of their food. In particular, Welcome Break invested heavily in Eat In, but slowly it was pushed out the picture as more and more customers favoured the fast food alternatives.
We have some archived motorway restaurant menus for your perusal:
- 1965 The Pennine Tower (Forton)
- 1977 The Motor Grill (Leicester Forest East)
- 2001 Little Chef (nationwide)
Comparisons with Europe
Since the 1960s, comments have been made about European services being much better. Several official studies have taken place, and they have always concluded that when you compare like-with-like and allow for the different funding models, there isn't much difference.
The early British motorway services were inspired by America, West Germany and Italy. They quickly discovered that most British customers didn't want the elaborate sit-down meals that Italy had made famous. Whereas the older European motorways were carrying a lot of holidaymakers, British motorways were carrying trucks and businessmen in a rush. (These days, most British motorways mainly carry commuters and local junction-hoppers.) In addition, British service areas tend to be overcrowded (due to high land prices and high traffic levels on the road), which makes fast food and take-away catering much more practical.
One government survey, carried out in 1969, found that service areas in the Netherlands and West Germany were actually cutting back on their food menu faster than the British ones, after reporting exactly the same drop in customer interest.
While there is no doubt that there is demand for a decent meal on the motorway, as isolated examples like Gloucester and Tebay have proven, if the demand for a restaurant like theirs were to be spread out across 100 service areas the business model would become a lot less sustainable. The bottom line is experience has taught service stations that the majority of visitors would rather have a quick snack or a meal from a famous brand than anything more fancy.
A survey in 2006 established that approximately 45% of visitors were using the food facilities at each service station, which is higher than you might have expected at the time. A 2022 study found that 59% of visitors were buying food or drinks to consume on-site, and a further 23% were buying food or drinks to take away.
Different On A-roads
Whereas motorway service areas were originally closely managed by the government, A-road service areas never have been, and this meant they became much better places to find variety and independent traders.
Little Chef were the first brand to create a network of A-road sites. By starting early, they became a powerful force when negotiating with suppliers and landowners, and were able to keep their costs very low. No new entrant stood a chance, with their only serious competitor, Happy Eater, eventually being merged with them.
McDonald's first became interested in service areas in 1991. As they already had a lot of money behind them, they had the same benefits that Little Chef had taken advantage of. As customers began to lose interest in sit-down restaurants in the 2000s, McDonald's were at their strongest, and soon became the most common roadside dining name.
The other change is that until the 1990s, A-road service areas would usually involve a fuel supplier and a restaurateur agreeing to go into business together. Instead, official "development zones" began to be designated, where land next to an A-road would be broken up and leased to a number of interested businesses. This meant new A-road service areas would offer more choice, although it would usually be the same few franchises.
Under the MSA Policy, hot drinks and hot food must be made available throughout the service station's opening hours; 24 hours in the case of motorway services. However, there is nothing forbidding those food and drinks being served by automated vending machines.
This rule is well known, but it has actually changed a few times. Until 2008 each contract was negotiated on a case-by-case basis: in practice this would always be as above, but it didn't have to be. Between 2008 and 2013, a distinction was made between "substantial" food that must be available in the day, and "snacks" that must be available at night (where applicable).
While this rule was stepped up in 2013, the rule changes only apply to changes made after that date. Old contracts still apply to older service areas. Highway authorities have ruled out taking action against service areas with poor quality or an uninspiring choice of food, although local authorities can still take action against genuine health hazards.