Wimpy Franchise UK. It’s May Bank Holiday weekend and, on Porthcawl sea front, Coney Beach Pleasure Park is a whirl of noise and colour.
Having rusted quietly throughout the off-season, it’s been patiently biding its time – waiting for the arrival of the late spring sunshine to bring back the laughter and bustle of holiday makers and locals looking to bask in the rising temperatures.
The nearby car park, however, resembles more the aftermath of a nuclear three minute warning, with vehicles left all over the place as though their owners have made some mad dash to grab one final go on the rides in what little time remains.
A rollercoaster rattles past overhead to the pumping strains of Sexy And You Know It by US dance duo LMFAO, whilst crowds of people jostle along the narrow boardwalk, weighing up whether to queue for chips or make a break for the sea.
Most importantly, right in the middle of that crossroads of decision is a Wimpy – that’s right, a Wimpy – the last of its kind in Wales.
And, standing there, shielding my eyes from the glare reflecting off its weather beaten metal signage, I feel like Attenborough rocking up at some sub-Saharan basin to come face to face with a species long thought extinct.
Because I’ve not seen a Wimpy, let alone tasted one of the items off its menu, since the 1980s when it seemed there was a branch on every high street in this country.
Indeed, as a young lad in Aberdare , my regular Saturday afternoon ritual would consist of watching wrestling on ITV’s World of Sport – Big Daddy versus Kendo Nagasaki most likely – and eating a Wimpy burger brought back by my parents from a shopping trip to the big city of Cardiff earlier that morning.
Crossed legged on the carpet, I’d eat it lukewarm, along with a similarly tepid serving of fries.
Don’t ask me why I never bothered to reheat them, I just didn’t. And it was heaven.
So standing here now, amongst the bucket and spade shops and candy floss concessions, I feel like I’ve stepped back to a forgotten time.
And I’m not the only one – Ruth Watkins from Caerphilly has also come in here today to relive a moment from her past.
“Quite by accident, mind,” says the 55-year-old receptionist, who’s on a day out with her husband Jeff.
“We were just after a walk on the beach while the weather was nice, but I ended up grabbing Jeff’s arm and going, ‘Look, love, a Wimpy’,” she laughs.
“Going for a burger in one of these used to be a big part of a Saturday night out with the girls back in the day.
“But it must have been 15 years since I last had one last – I didn’t even realise they were still going.”
Indeed, the story of Wimpy’s rise and fall is a curious one.
Inspired by the patty munching character of J Welington Wimpy in the Popeye cartoon strip of the 1930s, Wimpy first came to life in Bloomington, Indiana in the USA.
In 1954, the UK’s first branch – described as ‘a hamburger parlour’ – opened in London, situated within a West End art deco department store called Lyon’s Corner House.
By 1970, the brand had expanded, boasting – at its peak – more than 500 branches in Great Britain alone, with the first Welsh store opening in College Street, Swansea in 1963.
And, despite the brand’s US origins, there was something uniquely British about the place – not least the table service it offered or the cutlery and china plates with which customers were provided, along with the steadfast refusal to call chips ‘fries’.
Then there was Wimpy’s mascot himself – a cartoonish take on one of the Queen’s Beef Eater guards, he wore a red uniform and brandished a fork in one hand and a salt cellar in the other.
But it’s perhaps because of this Wimpy would eventually fall out of fashion, pushed to the fast food side lines by the more transatlantic cool of rivals like MaccyD’s and Burger King.
I mean, can you imagine that famous ‘Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?’ line from Pulp Fiction had Wimpy’s popularity not flagged?
Rather than query the Gallic name for a Whopper, Samuel L Jackson would’ve had to turn to John Travolta and reply, “And what do they call a Bender in a Bun?”
Ah yes, the Bender – Wimpy’s infamous Frankfurt sausage in a bap, sliced around the edges, deep fried and curled to fit into its circular bread housing.
Like a “porky laurel wreath,” as author Will Self once described it.
Nevertheless, Wimpy continued to roll (no pun intended) with the punches until 1989 when it was bought by Grand Metropolitan plc, which rebranded many of it outlets as Burger King – the rising company it also owned.
Now only 70 Wimpys still exist in the UK, these largely reduced to haunting service stations on the sides of A-roads or wind-whipped outlets on provincial sea fronts, like the seasonally open solitary one here on the South Wales coast.
Generally operating between “Easter and Bonfire night – weather depending,” the Porthcawl franchise has, for nearly 10 years, belonged to London-born local entrepreneur James Quantick.
“Swear to God, my first memory of going anywhere for a burger was a Wimpy, my mum took me when I was about five or six,” says the 41-year-old, who also owns a number of other businesses along that stretch, including a gift shop, pub and ice cream parlour.
Sitting in a drab back office surrounded by the kind of novelty items you see at a fairground lucky dip, such as personalised tape measures and comedy car licence plates – ‘COOL DAD’ reads one – he says he jumped at the chance to run a branch of the burger chain when the opportunity first arose.
“To my generation it’s an iconic brand, to younger people it perhaps means less,” he sighs.
“And it makes me sad to think some have never eaten a Wimpy or even heard of it.
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“The truth is, maybe the world has moved on since those glory days, but that nostalgic element is part of the charm.
“You can’t recreate that, no matter how big your marketing budget – so, if we put a smile on people’s faces as they go about their day, that ‘s great.”
So he doesn’t mind being a curio, as opposed to something more contemporary?
“I don’t mind that at all,” he adds, mentioning a big revamp that’s earmarked for the restaurant in the not to distant future.
“But we’ll have to see how that fits in with regeneration plans for the town as a whole . Those have been in the pipeline a long time already.
“One thing’s for sure though – while towns change and evolve all the time, this beach is always going to be here.
“And, for as long as I can help it, so shall we.”
By Nathan Bevan
Source: Wales Online