Sunday 6 July 2014

60 Years of British Burgers - We like them Wimpy!

[It all started here - Lyon's Corner House]
Hands up if you've had a pork bender.

My American readers might be looking puzzled, but UK readers of a certain age might be awash with nostalgia (or at least have a strange niggling memory). The bender (a curved and crenelated hot dog) was one of the delights on the menu of Wimpy, the UK's first burger chain.

I was inspired by a recent article on Burgernerd about the history of the burger to do a little digging on its history here in the UK.

 It all seems to point here, to a new item on the menu of a Lyon's Corner House in Coventry Street in London's Soho, in 1954. The 'burger'.

Now, let's put this in perspective.  The name 'Corner House' might imply something cosy and local, yet at their peak they were a huge business - open 24 hours, 250 branches across London, serving thousands of customers daily. The Coventry Street branch, the first to open in 1909, served 5,000 covers, had four floors and employed 400 staff.

[Original Wimpy UK logo]
Britain was changing in the 1950s - the end of rationing meant we were becoming more adventurous with our food. America's influence was becoming stronger, especially among the younger generation.

And in 1954, with the end of beef rationing, Eddie Gold came to Britain with an offer for the directors of Lyon's - the UK rights to his Chicago burger chain, Wimpy's Grills. Named after the character of J. Wellington Wimpy, from the popular Popeye cartoons, the name was already synonymous with the burger on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although there was a little initial scepticism among the more traditional members of the board, there was no doubting this new dish was a huge success. On the 18th May 1955, the first standalone Wimpy Bar opened, just a month after the first 'Ray Kroc' McDonalds in Illinois. (Pedants will point out the first ever McDonalds was opened by Dick and Mac in San Bernardino in 1940, but Illinios' was the first with the brand and business model that was to go stratospheric).

There was no doubt Wimpy was a huge success - by the 1970s there were over 1,000 restaurants in 23 countries. And it's in the late 70s that I would have experienced my first burger, in the branch in Henley-on-Thames.

Wimpy wasn't like the fast food restaurants of today - some of the tradition and conservatism of the Corner Houses remained. They had waitress table service, china plates and cutlery. When I visited with my parents, we'd have the grill (with the pork bender, snigger) - my mother would never let us eat the burger. We didn't eat with our hands - oh no, we weren't that sort of family. I only went for the desert anyway - the knickerbocker glory, the banana boat - such exotic delights for a ten year old boy. My first burger would have been had after a trip to the cinema one of my friends and their more modern parents.

[The site of the original McDs in San Bernadino]
It all changed in October, 1974, slowly at first, but an unstoppable tide. The first McDonalds opened in Woolwich and had reached my home town of Reading by the early 1980s. McDonalds didn't have waitresses, plates or cutlery - and that meant my mother would never go there. And there sounded the death-knell for Wimpy - the teenagers deserted en-masse to the new restaurant their parents didn't approve of, the cheap, shiny and unashamedly all-American McDonalds.

Wimpy UK got passed from owner to owner throughout the 80s and 90s, before being bought by its South African franchise - who are in the process of returning the remaining 200 branches (still table service!) to their original 1960s branding.

So it looks like a pilgrimage is in order. My nearest branch is in Haverhill (now there's a town that time forgot, so no surprises there), so after the summer's road trip I must go and visit them. Alas, there's no knickerbocker glory any more, but happy to see the pork bender (still can't stop sniggering) is still on the menu.

Wimpy and Lyon's links:

Peter Bird's history of Wimpy and Lyons
Review of Wimpy in the Independent
Pictures of Pork Benders on Google (snigger)
I remember those! Lyon's Corner Houses

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