, UK
Chris Woolfenden, General Manager of Wimpy UK.

How a shift in strategy will boost Wimpy’s 70-year legacy

Adapting to changes in the high street was a significant challenge for the brand.

 A ‘shift’ in business strategy will continue to bolster Wimpy’s presence in the UK, as rapid changes in the UK’s high street continue to challenge the fast-food industry.

“Everyone will recognise how the British high street has been changing rapidly, not least the loss of such well-known names as BHS and Debenhams. Whilst they were not in the same sector as us, there’s no doubt many of the same challenges affected Wimpy, including of course the need to provide real value to our customers and to manage increasing costs, such as high street rent,” Chris Woolfenden, General Manager of Wimpy UK told QSR Media.

Wimpy recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. The brand was founded by Edward Gold, who opened the first Wimpy Grill in Bloomington, Indiana in 1934. The restaurant was named after J Wellington Wimpy, a character from a Popeye comic strip. In 1954, the Wimpy name was licensed to British firm J Lyons & Co, which opened the first Wimpy Bar in Lyons Corner House, in London.

Wimpy’s legacy and shift in strategy.

Back in the 1980s, Chris’ father Max Woolfenden was the managing director of Wimpy. This makes Chris a legacy.

“I worked in Wimpy Windsor for a while in 1984, it was quite funny as I used my mother’s maiden name for the interview and no one knew who my father was until he arrived at the restaurant one day,” Chris said.

“I then took some time out to go travelling and worked in other sectors, including retail and recruitment, but Wimpy drew me back in and I re-joined the company in 1994. By that time, my father and two partners had undertaken a management buy-out of the business and I had to work even harder.”

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In 2004, Chris’ father sold the business and three years later, in 2007, it was bought by South African-based Famous Brands group, Africa’s largest branded food service franchisor and owner of Wimpy in South Africa. Today in the UK, Wimpy has 63 restaurants.

“Having Famous Brands on board has been a huge advantage because its team brought in-depth knowledge of the brand and a different skillset that we can use to our advantage,” Chris said.

With Famous Brands on board, the brand started to change, one of the biggest was its major refurbishment programme called SHIFT.

In Wimpy’s new SHIFT-designed restaurants, colours are brighter, there are new artworks, and the brand returned to the popular bench-style seating. Modern amenities like USB charging points for phones have also been incorporated into the design.

“What hasn’t changed though is our Wimpy welcome, the fact you take a seat at a table and a waiter/waitress who brings you a menu. All our food is cooked to order and it’s served with a smile on a china plate with ‘real’ cutlery, not plastic knives and forks,” Chris said.

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Chris said another challenge was explaining to franchisees the benefits of adopting this new design.

“The refurbishment programmes often require shutting the doors whilst the work is done and no one likes that happening, but I can promise you our franchisees who have adopted SHIFT agree it’s been a challenge worth going through in return for the benefits they are seeing. Happy customers mean happy franchisees and, put simply, we wouldn’t still be here after 70 years if we weren’t doing something right,” Chris explained.

Chris said they are also looking to expand their portfolio of restaurant formats. For example, the brand has the Wimpy Express format, which is built purely around takeaway.

“We’re always looking for new and different opportunities. Using this (Wimpy Express) type of operation as a future building block is something we’re open to looking at. If an idea presents itself that we think would be right for the brand, then we will always consider it,” Chris said.

Menu innovation

As part of Wimpy’s 70th anniversary celebration, the brand launched a special Legends Menu. What Wimpy’s did was take fan favourite dishes and recreate them with a modern twist.

“We started with our Corner House Coffee Shake – next month will be a new version of our original pure beef hamburger and chips – and look out for some delicious desserts coming soon,” Chris said.

Cost challenges have also continued to affect customer spending so Wimpy’s has regular promotions such as the #WimpyWednesday meal deals.

“Our in-house purchasing team has an excellent relationship with our suppliers and works closely with our franchisees to ensure they get the best value for money. We’re constantly looking at ways we can innovate in the supply chain and if that means considering alternatives that offer the same quality at a better price, then we will put deals on the table,” Chris explained.

Chris said they also give value-added support such as when franchisees want to negotiate new utility contracts and want Wimpy’s expertise. 

AI and technology

Personally, Chris is a big fan of technology. However, he believes it is also a question of recognising that it usually requires significant investment and benefits can take a while to be fully realised.

“What I will say is that we will, and are already, embracing technology where it brings benefits to the brand and our customers. Our Wimpy Clarence Pier in Southsea, for example, has already adopted digital ordering and that’s something we are potentially looking to expand, as it is proving very popular with customers. For us, I think AI is probably most appropriate within the delivery service arena,” Chris said.

As a business leader with the fast-food business in his blood, Chris said the biggest thing he learned is to be a listener.

“Our franchisees are at the heart of the Wimpy business and my relationship with them is something I take incredibly seriously. To me, we are one big Wimpy family and I work very hard indeed to ensure that their voices are heard. We have our Wimpy National Franchise Council (WNFC), where all the franchisees have the opportunity to nominate their peers to represent them, and we discuss all sorts of issues, such as new menu plans and brand developments. Our 2024/2025 WNFC has just been announced and I’m looking forward to working closely together as always.”

*all photos credited to Wimpy.

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