Me and my baby, Rudy, are old pros now at driving far and wide for my work. We’re like Thelma and Louise. I’m the brown-and-curly-haired one and he does the murders. Well, tortures. He cries unless I play a CD of lullabies which is only just less offensive to listen to than the crying.
We’ve stopped for lunch in every type of roadside cesspit that you can imagine. The A1 has particularly thin pickings. It’s a many-hundred-mile, straight, soul-needling stretch of knocking shops and derelict former knocking shops. Gone are the days where my heart would bob with a modicum of hope when spotting a ‘services’ sign. Those aren’t the ‘services’ I want to buy.
On usual journeys I wait to stop somewhere with hot food (with the option of green bits), high chairs and baby changing. I’d say I’m somewhere between ‘not fussy’ and ‘aware that I only get one chance to live this life’. On the A1, even those ropey standards drop.
So when I happened upon a Little Chef, the laughing stock of other roadside eateries, here, on the A1, it felt like winning the lottery. OK, maybe £1 on a scratchcard.
As a rule, they are warm and they are safe. On this occasion it was warm, safe and a revelatory emotional rollercoaster. It was like some sort of Shameless theme park.
If I haven’t painted a bleak enough picture yet, it was also a wild, stormy day. I lugged my unit of a child from the car into the ‘restaurant.’ Inside it was a huge oblong diner, flanked by the open-view kitchen. Ten or so grey-skinned customers hunched over their fried items, glowering at us noisy newcomers. There was an unattended till, which I warily stood near, scouring for highchairs and toilets.
An older couple burst in behind us, a flurry of quickly muted vim. Their jolly conversation hit the wall of turgid atmosphere, becoming giggled whispers. They took one of the many empty tables. Suddenly a ghostly member of staff jogged over, fresh out of Dallas Buyers Club.
“I realised that this lonely, jagged streak of staff-member was doing everything, for everyone. No wonder he was angry. He was the only waiter, the only chef and the only maître d’.”[/vc_blockquote]
“Hello. Sorry I wasn’t sure if I’m meant to wait here?” I said, my son wiggling in my arms, cretinously gleeful at the sight of someone that objectively harrowing.
“You are. Not like these two who just helped themselves.” He bellowed this so fearsomely at the older couple, I’m surprised they didn’t audibly guff. As he showed me to my seat, I turned around to share a naughty smirk with them. It was a joyous moment. It must be what it feels like when you find allies in prison.
My loyalties began to waver once we sat down though, when I realised that this lonely, jagged streak of staff-member was doing everything, for everyone. No wonder he was angry. He was the only waiter, the only chef and the only maître d’.
I watched this man dart between tables, microwaves, deep-fat fryers and frothing pipes like a pissy tattooed gazelle. Understandably, there were gaping holes in time between ordering and eating but eventually we did both. The longevity of this soap opera was only made tolerable by my baby’s inexplicable good mood throughout.
I’d brought some minestrone from home for Rudy. ‘Everyman’ kindly nuked it for us into a treacherous lava. I had a jacket potato with tuna mayonnaise. The child wolfed most of his and had a fair crack at mine.
I was stunned by how absolutely edible my potato was. I’d envisaged a microwaved horror, wet-leather skinned and powdery bodied but it was fine, actually. It was huge, the innards fluffy and, while the skin obviously wasn’t crackly or crisp, it was tasty rather than tough. And the tuna mayonnaise was nice. I watched it come from a big plastic tub but at least it didn’t taste of sugar and metal like it used to in my university halls. The salad was the biggest shock. It was fresh, crunchy and nicely dressed. That man doing everything was doing a truly incredible job, in the context.
As our adventure came full circle, we stood back at the till, waiting for the man to have to time to take my money. I plucked up the courage to ask, “Why are you doing everything by yourself?”
He said, “We’re short staffed but yeah, they don’t employ many of us to work at the same time.”
Up until that point I’d felt everything from fear to amusement to awe, but then came rage. Shame on you, Kout Food Group who own these places. It’s not called ‘Little Chef’ because that chef has literally worn themselves away, to virtual invisibility, through overwork.
Until I get notice they’ve stopped this inhumane lunacy and given their staff some colleagues, I’m boycotting Little Chef. Even on the A1. Who knows, maybe there’s a motel along there somewhere for people with fetishes for highchairs and baby-changing? I think we are probably best off sticking to car picnics.
Little Chef, Markham Moor North, A1 Northbound Retford, DN22 0QU
Tel: 01777 838092
Accessible: Yes, with a large accessible toilet.
Catch up with Jess’s previous Hooverings here.