The Unlikely Survival of Wimpy, the Retro Burger Chain That Refuses to Die

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imageAll photos: Andy Hughes Ah, the great British high street – a boulevard of dreams where you can get a Millie’s cookie at 11AM before settling down on a cold bench to watch a punch-up outside a chain pub .

Advertisement Over the years, many of its former institutions have collapsed ignominiously into administration, only to suffer the indignity of being picked over by bargain hunters hoping to snaffle the last 3D puzzle globe from a soon-to-be-shuttered Debenhams.

But even with the closure of over 11,000 high street outlets and former bastions like BHS and Cafe Rouge, one food chain has quietly carved out enough of a niche to survive: Wimpy.Yes, the old-fashioned restaurant that still calls its smoked sausage burger a “Bender in a Bun” is going strong, albeit slightly diminished from its glory days, when it had hundreds of outlets across the country.

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Wimpy first arrived in the UK in 1954 from Bloomington, Indiana, where it was founded by American restauranteur Edward Gold.The chain still operates 67 outlets in the UK, and, in a reversal of the trend experienced by other high street brands, is actually in the process of building and launching new stores, seeking to rebrand itself and shake off its reputation as a retro lunch spot favoured by nans.That means that every franchise in the country will eventually undergo what its head office somewhat vaguely describes as a “design shift” to institute “the modern face of Wimpy”.

To try and understand how the rebrand is working and why people still love Wimpy so much, I spent a day at the Shrewsbury franchise speaking to staff and customers.Unlike most places in the UK, Shrewsbury town centre doesn’t have a McDonald’s or a Burger King.This not only raises the question “where do the teen goths hang out?”, but it also creates something of a burger patty power vacuum that only Wimpy can fill.

Wimpy in Shrewsbury.

Located on Claremont Street, near the town’s famous market hall, the Shrewsbury Wimpy has moved around a lot over the years – and after a decade-long hiatus where the chain had no presence in the town, it returned like a prodigal son in 2018 thanks to franchisee and former Turkish takeaway owner Ali Riza Akyuz.

Stepping through the front door, we were immediately greeted by Mike Tandy, a 60-year-old former squaddie who’s the acting restaurant manager.As we settled into one of the shiny red booths, Mike busied himself greeting his other customers by name and bringing over their regular orders.

Advertisement “There’s one older gentleman who comes in and always sits on Table 2,” Mike says.

“I know his order by heart – he will always have a pot of tea and an egg muffin with just a small amount of ketchup.

If he walks past the window and there’s someone sitting at Table 2, he won’t come in.”

Alongside the loyal regulars, Mike also sees a number of die-hard fans who travel for miles to get a taste of the brand’s Special Sauce.(Wimpy claims it is made to a secret recipe, but most fast food joints use a broadly similar mix of ketchup, mayonnaise and sweet pickle relish.) “We have a guy who comes from Wolverhampton on the last Friday of every month,” Mike says, “because, whatever direction he’s driving, we are his nearest Wimpy.”

A spread of Wimpy burgers, chips and coffee.

Alistair Houghton is one of the cult fans who’s travelled the length and breadth of the country chasing the dragon of a pure Wimpy hit.A self-styled “Wimpy enthusiast”, he once went on a “Wimpy Crawl” through Scotland with the sole aim of visiting as many franchises as possible.

“When you tell people you like going to Wimpy, a lot of people’s first reaction is ‘I didn’t know it was still going’.I think that piqued my attention,” Alistair says.

“It’s nice food, a nice burger and chips , a good meal – but [the restaurants] do tend to be interesting places because there aren’t as many as there used to be.

Advertisement “Over the years they’ve closed in bigger town centres but they are still open in smaller places like Middlesbrough and Birkenhead.It gives me lots of interesting places to travel to and they are all slightly different.

“A lot of Wimpys in smaller places are still just like community hubs, compared with other chain places to eat and drink that don’t fulfil that role.

What they are in effect is essentially old-fashioned cafes, more so than a McDonald’s or Burger King.”

Wimpy manager Mike Tandy: “We have a guy who comes from Wolverhampton.”

The sense of community Alistair touched on was evident in Shrewsbury, where many of the people I spoke to had come in on their own.

In short: You don’t have to feel like a weirdo if you want to smash a Wimpy Kingsize burger entirely alone at 11:50AM on a Thursday.

One of the solo diners I chatted to was David William, who’s 39 years old and currently unemployed.

David comes into the Wimpy when he makes a trip into town to run errands, explaining that he likes it because he’s always made to feel welcome when he’s sitting alone.

“I used to come as a kid and I’ve got fond memories of coming here for a treat.I like the customer service here and I like the food – it always feels welcoming,” he says.

The lack of pretension and accessibility – you can easily get a burger with drink and chips for under a tenner – means Wimpy cuts across all strata of society.

In the hours I spent with my banana milkshake, I spoke to nans, college students, mums with newborns and couples on dates.

Advertisement One couple, Amy Taylor and Lewis Walton, told me Wimpy is the only place they can both agree on when it comes to dates.“I’m a vegetarian and Lewis is a picky eater because he’s autistic,” Amy, who’s 26 and works in a local cafe, says.“Garlic is a spice for Lewis.”

Wimpy diners Amy Taylor and Lewis Walton.

Lewis, 28, added: “It’s the only place I can get a fry-up and a burger in the middle of the day.I’m not a fan of the Shrewsbury food scene – I don’t want a square plate with a tiny fry-up for £15.It’s nice to know what you’re getting.”

That sense of “knowing what you’re getting” was echoed by a number of the diners I spoke to.Carol Ackerman and Cathy Capitani came in during the lunchtime rush with another friend who bolted for the toilets when I approached them for a chat.

Cathy, the obvious leader of the squad, said they had come in looking for “some basic English food, because that’s what we want”.

And while the menu is primarily “basic English food” – or at least basic American food as reimagined for English people – Wimpy has also branched out in recent years to offer a vegan burger and a spicy southern fried Quorn patty.

Wimpy UK general manager Chris Woolfenden explains the bind that the decades-old chain faces.“[We are] deliberately trying to move away from the retro perception of Wimpy,” he says.“While we do appreciate we’ve got a customer base that is very loyal out there, we do need to bring Wimpy into the future and plan for the future.

The remains of a Wimpy burger on a plate.

“Wimpy was born in 1954 in the UK and it’s still on the UK high street.I think that’s testament to the brand, its history, the customer base – but also the fact that we need to look to the future,” Chris adds, pointing to its hire of a new marketing company and merch giveaways of baseball caps and hoodies as proof the chain is entering the 21st century.

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They’ve got a way to go to achieve this.

WimpyUK currently has around 4,300 followers on Instagram, which is decidedly less than most of the girls I went to school with who set up house reno accounts while on maternity leave.But with three new restaurants currently being built and a new look being rolled out across the chain, Wimpy bosses clearly see a future for frankfurter burgers and all-day breakfasts on the British high street.

With the dramatic collapse of so many high street behemoths, it’s understandable people want to look back at a time when it felt like Britain was booming – when Topshop still straddled Oxford Circus like a colossus and “Everything Must Go” signs were a rarity in shop windows.

But Wimpy doesn’t seem satisfied with simply cashing in on the retro appeal and cult following.As bosses like Chris and franchisees like Ali set about investing in the future of the business, they must hope that by launching a “modern face of Wimpy” they’ll create a broader appeal.At the very least, an International Grill for breakfast might one day entail something a little more adventurous than a fried breakfast with a burger patty on the side.

@emiliabonaECHO.

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