Friday, 12 January 2007

Demographic Redundancy

We nearly lost a dear friend over Christmas - the Little Chef chain of restaurants. The Times had a piece that gave the facts of the story (View Article), but there is more to it than the financial pages can convey.

We need to provide a bit of background for those who are based outside of the UK. The road sytstem in the UK has been constructed at a number of levels. The primary routes are the Motorways (the 'M' roads). The secondary routes are Trunk Roads (the 'A' roads). Facilities are provided on the Motorways by a series of service stations that are regulated by the Department of Transport. Facilities on the Trunk Roads are not regulated so closely, and are determined by market forces. The Little Chef is a national network of facilities (about 300 of them) based almost exclusively on the Trunk Roads. They normally provide a petrol facility, a dining facility, and a rest room facility.

The emphasis of the Little Chef chain is 'slow'. In a world of instant service and fast food, the Little Chef restaurants provide a counter-balance to the pace of modern life. The chain works on a model of service at the table and the food is cooked to order on the premises. It is almost diametrically opposed to the McDonalds model of food service. They appeal to people like me, who like to travel slowly, who want a bit of company when on the road, and who want their meals individualised rather than mass-produced. Sadly, this demographic is diminishing.

As we rush into the future at even greater speeds, the emphasis is on 'fast'. The Motorways are congested, as people choose this route in an attempt to travel at faster speeds. This is despite having a parallel network of Trunk Roads that are almost empty. We all consume food that is ready to eat as we purchase it, in a restaurant that is designed for 'throughput' rather than comfort. Sadly, this demographic is growing.

The Little Chef chain is in trouble because it no longer provides what the public wishes to buy. It has become a victim of a demographic shift away from the core of its business model. Even though the rescue package has been agreed, we fear that the chain will be saved by becoming more like its nemesis. This could make it even more demographically redundant. We have become used to the concept of being 'technologically redundant' (remember the 'typing pool'), but it may take a bit of time to become accustmed to being 'demographically redundant'.

Perhaps that's one of the costs of the Information Age?

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