The Slow Death of Wimpy, a British Institution
It's so much more than a place that sells burgers.
The Streatham branch of Wimpy
This year, Wimpy – one of Britain’s inaugural fast food chains – turns 60. At its peak, there were over 500 Wimpys in the UK and one on every high street in every major city, all of them serving a very British approximation of what hamburgers should be: more football stadium burger van than Texan dirty food sudden death. But the high street institution’s numbers are dwindling; there are now just 93 restaurants remaining in the UK, with rivals McDonald's and Burger King operating roughly 1,300 branches each.
Wimpy's first location – on London’s Coventry Street – is now one of those places that sell Big Ben figurines and "Free the Weed" T-shirts to German exchange students. The branches that do remain are mostly clustered in the South East (in lots of drab seaside towns), with zero left in Central London, meaning that few tourists will experience the rare pleasure of wrapping their lips round Wimpy’s signature "Bender-in-a-bun", a delicacy described by Will Self as “a frankfurter bent and crenulated so that it resembles a porky laurel wreath”.
The restaurant now seems to occupy, at best, a vague, sentimental presence in the collective British psyche. When I ask friends to tell me the first thing they think of when I mention Wimpy, the most common reaction is either: “It’s still going?” or a sort of misty-eyed nostalgia about it being the last place in their town where you could smoke inside before the ban came into full effect. It’s likely that my generation will probably be the last to recognise Wimpy as a part of the cultural fabric rather than just something with a funny name that you occasionally drive past on an A-road.
One of those roads is the A23, which connects London to Brighton. The A23 includes the high road of my hometown, Streatham. It's a frequently congested, not especially picturesque strip of tarmac that once picked up the enviable title of the “worst high road in the country”. The reputation (and property prices) of the road has waxed and waned over the years, but it’s retained one constant: a Wimpy branch that, despite the broader fortunes of the company, seems to still be going strong. I’ve been going there to inhale spicy bean burgers for the best part of three decades.
Kemal in the Streatham Wimpy
I recently had a chat with its owner, Kemal, a friendly Turkish-Cypriot who moved to England from Paphos, Cyprus in 1975 to escape the civil unrest that had long rumbled between the country’s ethnic Greek and Turkish populations. He went into business with his older brother – an accountant who’d bought the Streatham franchise from Wimpy International a few years before – and soon took over the restaurant by himself, its existing staff replaced by friends and family. Kemal has been the boss for a remarkable 38 years. From Callaghan to Cameron, from Mr Arkwright to Joey Essex, from Brotherhood of Man to Pitbull and Google’s transformation from noun to verb, Kemal and his team have been picking up their paycheques.
Kemal got in when the going was good – the 1970s was Wimpy’s halcyon period. By the dawn of the decade it had expanded to over 1,000 restaurants in 23 countries (becoming the first international burger chain in, weirdly, Egypt), but the UK was still its thriving home. According to my mum, “Wimpy used to be a pretty cool place in the 70s, both as a family eating place on shopping days and a place for teenagers to hang out on Saturday afternoons and before and after going clubbing.” Film critic Julien Allen told me about his wide-eyed wonderment at visiting the Oxford Street branch with his dad in 1978: “It was my first time in a burger bar,” he recalled. “It was impossibly glamorous.”
However, something else was brewing that decade: It was the ghost at the feast, and that ghost was a clown with a red bouffant, red lips, a white face and a stupid yellow onesie. In 1973, symbolising the first stage in the company’s bid for British domination, McDonald’s Golden Arches Restaurants Limited was founded in the UK. A year later, the first McDonald’s restaurant opened in Woolwich, South East London. In a strange quirk of fate, Burger King opened its first UK location, in 1977, on Coventry Street, where Wimpy had started some 23 years before. That same year, the Wimpy business was acquired by United Biscuits and, in response to the popular approach of its new rivals, “counter service” restaurants began to open.
During the 80s, Wimpy just about held its own. It had a visible public profile – something that’s difficult to imagine today – with TV ads (like the 1988 good vibes rockabilly spot above), a Commodore 64 computer game tie-in and, of course, their strange, presumably blind mascot, Mr Wimpy. Less instantly terrifying than Ronald McDonald, Mr Wimpy was still definitely very unsettling.
“It's the face,” frets film critic Michael Pattison. “It doesn't have eyes – there's just a big round nose and an unchanging smile. The way the hat comes down to the nose, resting on it. It means there are no eyes, but at the same time there's something beady about it, as if the guy's having to squint to see out from under the brim. It's very strange.”
Mr Wimpy in one of the Wimpy computer game tie-ins
Mr Wimpy quietly frightened his last child some time in the late 80s, spirited away forever to a digital afterlife of movie and TV tie-ins.
In 1989, Wimpy underwent the most significant change in its history – not that I was aware of it at the time, of course. A company called Grand Metropolitan PLC (which had also recently acquired Burger King) bought it and converted nearly 100 Wimpy counter-service units into Burger Kings. By 1990, 200 Wimpy restaurants were fully converted into Burger Kings, though the Streatham branch floated on serenely. In retrospect, it seems the broader Wimpy brand was co-opted as a Trojan horse in a proxy war against the McDonald’s colossus.
The author, left, in the Streatham Wimpy in 1987
Was Wimpy’s name a self-fulfilling prophecy? Could it have stood up and fought for itself more? Perhaps. But even as a youngster I was dimly aware that Wimpy lacked the swagger of its American competitors. On a personal level, I never minded; Wimpy always seemed to be content with gently maintaining a shabby, understated Britishness, down to its conjoined plasticky table-chair combos and stoically unchanging menu. If McDonald's was Friends, then Wimpy was Only Fools and Horses. And that was fine by me.
As I got older, I moved away from Streatham and stopped visiting Wimpy so much, but I was always pleased to see the branch thriving against stiff competition when I did occasionally return. Kemal is barely able to suppress a smirk when he tells me of his satisfaction at having seen off the nearby McDonald's on Streatham High Road, which opened in 1979 and closed around 12 years ago. Still, the changing tide was engulfing the Wimpy brand. As the new millennium approached, Wimpy languished at 283 branches, while Burger King had 605 and McDonald’s sped away from the pack with 990.
Even so, a 2002 Guardian article – inspired by yet another Wimpy management buyout and rebrand (a slightly garish yellow and green design) – confidently predicted a comeback for the beleaguered burger chain on the grounds that a new type of high street had opened up: “One catering for people who cannot afford to indulge in the sort of consumer splurging that is apparently fending off recession.”
Of course, the comeback never fully materialised, and Wimpy was subject to another takeover, this time in 2007 – a year before the recession hit – by South African company Famous Brands.
On the 22nd of October, 2007, the new format was launched at the Benfleet, Essex branch. The guest of honour was Geoffrey Hayes from 70s kids’ TV show Rainbow, dressed up as Mr Wimpy. The idea of Geoffrey – a pretty niche, odd, half-forgotten comic presence – embodying Wimpy’s recent fortunes is a pretty fitting one.
There are obviously infinitely worse things to be getting upset about than the decreasing influence of a fast food chain, but Wimpy’s broader UK predicament is nevertheless a little saddening. Its downturn is due to a combination of vigorous and ubiquitous competition, a terrible economic climate, a lust for instant gratification and the brand’s enduring lack of willingness to really assert itself in the public eye.
Wimpy is not dead yet – its Twitter bio, “Round here we say chips not fries”, is weirdly (and amusingly) antagonistic – but only a true optimist could be that hopeful about its future prospects.
Kemal at work in the Streatham branch
Yet, the Streatham branch – to the naked eye, at least – remains in robust health. Is this an aberration? A quirk of fate? Or simply a case of exceptional management prevailing in a climate of adversity? I’m tempted by the latter option. Kemal is part of the furniture, having lived in Streatham for the best part of 40 years. (“I like it. It’s changed, though – you can’t go dancing any more.”) He is rightly very proud of his tenure, and claims to know 80 percent of his customer base by name.
I’ve always been struck by the collegial atmosphere of the branch, and the diversity of its customers. As if to illustrate the point, on the day that I chat with Kemal, two clergymen (one black, one white) are replaced at a table by a multiracial group of teenagers covered in piercings and tattoos. As a metaphor for the branch’s brand of social fluidity, it’s almost too perfect. Kemal tells me that, once a month, a group of police from the local Met branch take up residence for a few hours for a drop-in session, making the Streatham branch something of a community hub.
Ultimately, it’s a successful family business that strikes an odd pitch between fast food chain and local café, and clearly reflects the pride and consistent attention that Kemal has invested in it. Maybe the company just needs a few more like him to keep the spirit going.
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