Motorway Services Online

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What is an operator?

Motor Chef Scratchwood services
Here, the building was owned by Fortes, but their brand name Motor Chef was the operator and the name advertised.

In the motorway service station industry, the word operator is used to refer to a single company/brand name who (as far as the public know) are responsible for providing the facilities at a service station.

The operator's name will usually be advertised on the motorway signs and around the building, and they will be the first point-of-call for customer enquiries. A list of operators can be found on this website.


The term 'operator' is deliberately used to offer customers a simple and recognisable point-of-reference. The reality is often a little more complicated.

Increasingly, parts of a service station may be leased out to another company. This means there is not actually one company operating the whole site, but two or more. Only the main landowner will usually regarded as the "operator", and they will pass on any enquiries.

Many A-road services have been developed by a land management company, who then sell different parts of the land to different companies, meaning there is no operator by our definition. It is clearer to refer to each of the facility providers as "owners", but sometimes 'operator' will be used to describe the owner of the main restaurant, if there is one.

Margram is an example of a company who engaged in a similar strategy, but as they owned some motorway service areas, they had to give a brand name to use on the motorway signs. They gave the name of their main facility, McDonald's. This means McDonald's is the operator and Margram was merely the company who owned the land. However, this could cause confusion with McDonald's' wider business strategy, so in this case a clarification is normally required.

Forecourt Providers

Granada motorway sign.
Operator names were added to road signs in 1982.

A number of petrol companies have bid to run motorway services. Normally they will lease some or all of the facilities to a catering company: for example BP won the contract for Killington Lake but leased the facilities to Roadchef. Often, that catering company will then be treated as the operator, and have their name displayed on the signs, even though they don't own the main lease.

Although companies no longer have to bid to run motorway services, the same process has happened with petrol companies buying land and leasing parts of it out.

When Esso did become an operator, they did it under the name Taverna. This means the Taverna brand was the operator, and the Esso brand continued to be used only for selling fuel. A modern example that's very similar to that is Applegreen (the fuel brand) owning Welcome Break (the name used around larger sites).


The term 'operator' dates back to the earliest service stations, where companies were invited to submit their plans for whole service station developments. If they won the contract, they would have to inform the Ministry of the brand name their company would be using in public.

The regulations allowed only that brand name to be advertised, and they came to be known as "the operator of the facilities".


This website will sometimes appear to use the terms "operator" and "developer" interchangeably.

The difference is rather literal: the developer was in charge of a planned service area until it opened, and after that it was the operator who ran it. Historically, these would always be the same company, and the government would usually use both terms correctly.

Since 1992 it has become more common for one company to initiate the planning process (the "developer"), and they would then look to sell or lease the project to an experienced operator. Folkestone is a good example, as numerous planning agencies were involved in its development, but it was ultimately opened under a totally new operator name.