I stopped off at a garden centre cafe this week – very useful if you drive quite a bit as I do. Many are situated on main roads and usually have large free car parks and are mostly popular with families or older people, which is a guide to good value and friendly service – not always apparent in the designer or more stylish places located in town centres. Anyway, while enjoying a cappuccino and scone (a favourite while on one of these regular stops for me, although not particularly good for the calorie count), we remarked on how the customer base and menu have changed over the years and expanded like you would not have believed.
It seems, too, that the ‘evergreen’ favourite big full ‘English’ breakfast, a staple in many places, is now giving way to meals described as the ‘Head gardeners breakfast’, or the ‘bounty’ or some such. Prices have risen, too, with the full nine yards now costing around seven to eight pounds in many places. The other thing is the surprising number of places that do a ‘bake off style’ high tea, complete with traditional sandwiches, cakes and scones, noticeably though prices have fallen on these. Perhaps it’s the time of year and customers like me are watching their waistlines! Or the popularity of the T.V programme is waning.
Staff will tell you that the whole world and their partners passes through and how most are very pleasant people and they get to know the regulars who usually have time for a laugh or a chat, which is part of the attraction, especially for people who are alone or young mums meeting others with children in a sort of unofficial play group, which seem to be more and more popular these days. Staff, although you may not think it, are a good barometer of the national mood or the latest must-have designer clothes or electronic gizmo as they see dozens daily – particularly in the busier establishments.
For business people, cafes seem to have taken the place of the late and lamented ‘Little Chef’ chain or the much loved ‘Happy Eater’ cafes that older people may well remember. A nice bright place to stop for a break, they were popular with women travelling alone too, as they were comfortable non-threatening, friendly environments which could often not be said of their earlier counterparts, the ‘transport cafe’. These had potholed lorry parks, smoke-filled interiors, plastic table tops and lorry drivers (when their job included loading and unloading and doing running repairs) in overalls, mostly stained with oil or worse which were the order of the day. The ‘full English’ breakfast in those days was just that, often running in fat, eaten to an accompaniment of music from the juke box and always somebody reading one of the tabloid newspapers provided or left by previous drivers while smoking a Park Drive or Woodbine.
Some establishments also provided B&B accommodation for these long-distance drivers, the ‘knights of the road’ as they were known. Others though, were usually the haunts of ‘coffee bar cowboys’ – James Dean or Elvis wannabees, all with slicked-backed hair and leather jackets and noisy exhausts on their souped up Triumph or BSA motorcycles. They were mostly decent young blokes with their girlfriends but an acquired taste and not the sort of place you would take Aunt Agatha, or a place many women would enter alone. Not that there were many, if any, women lorry drivers or business travellers in those days.
But the world moved on and it all started to change as more and more motorways were completed and motorway service centres were opened with good quality, if expensive, cafes and restaurants, some with waiter service. It’s hard to believe that people actually drove along motorways to have a meal at a service station restaurant and watch the traffic speeding by from the window seat. A far cry from ‘a wad and a char’ or an espresso frothy coffee served in a Pyrex cup.
It’s noticeable too what people now do while eating, either alone or with family or friends. Not very long ago many establishments provided newspapers, a selection of tabloids and broadsheets. Now that’s a good indication of how readership of the print media is falling; free to read newspapers are a very rare sight these days and apart from a few elderly couples, I’ve not seen many reading the papers at all. The ones who do seem to bring with them either the Guardian or the Telegraph. You’ve probably seen them – the sort of people who have little to say to each other and occupy a table long after their coffee or breakfast has been finished.
You occasionally see somebody engrossed in a book, but they are people by themselves, perhaps that’s why. Interestingly, the fad for displaying the ‘must have’ Kindle seems to have faded in cafes, as they are rarely in evidence now and as sales of books continue to increase. Then came the Blackberry explosion and anyone but anyone who was somebody or something, overnight it seems, dumped their Filofax (the bigger the better) and took to reading or sending texts.
Next came the explosion in mobile phones, and to show how important or otherwise one was the latest phone alarm jingle had to sound at least twice, (sorry two times) during your stay; these had to play at full volume and at busy times so many sounded at once. The noise was reminiscent of an orchestra tuning up.
Thank goodness that is no longer the case, although you do hear some, mostly I’ve noticed older people who take ages either to hear ‘their tune’ or locate the phone buried in a bag or back pocket or somewhere. They will then bellow into the phone rather like that now late and lamented Speaker in the House of Commons. The benefit is, of course, that the captive audience will be regaled with conversations of national importance not about Brexit but somebody’s doctor’s appointment or when the boiler repair man will call.
Part 2 will be published here tomorrow.