The town of Uckfield, in East Sussex, is easy to overlook. I know this because, when I was ten, we moved to the village of Firle, less than ten miles away. Over the next decade, despite occasionally passing through the town, I think I set foot in it only once, when I went there for a cricket match. Since the construction of a ring road about a decade ago, Uckfield has become even easier to avoid.
But those of an entrepreneurial disposition are not easily deterred, and so it proved for Christopher Nye, a Brighton resident who in the mid-1990s fulfilled a lifetime's ambition by opening an American-style diner in Uckfield. Nye's aim was to become the "self-styled Rocco Forte of the road to Eastbourne". Even if he didn't quite achieve this, he made a success of the venture and sold it for a modest profit a few years later. He has now chronicled the experience in an entertaining memoir, Maximum Diner: making it big in Uckfield.
Despite the oxymoronic subtitle (no one, after all, "makes it big" in Uckfield), Nye's scheme was not quite as hare-brained as it sounds. In a town where, as he points out, "you're spoilt for choice" if you want to buy "a plastic washing-up bowl for under a pound or try out a new brand of economy toilet tissue", attempting anything more sophisticated than a hamburger joint would have resulted in certain failure. Besides, Nye was exploiting a gap in the market: the nearest McDonald's was in Brighton, nearly 15 miles away.
Nye has displayed similar canniness in his new field of endeavour, writing. The subject matter of Maximum Diner could hardly be more timely. Thanks to the compulsively entertaining Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, which has been showing these past few weeks on Channel 4, interest in the nuts and bolts of the restaurant trade has never been greater. Nye exploits the inbuilt drama of the enterprise (will or won't the Maximum Diner survive?), offers colourful portraits of employees and customers, and punctuates his narrative with some nicely self-deprecating asides. Despite all this, I doubt that Maximum Diner will gain the exposure necessary to become a commercial success, on account of its publisher being the relatively obscure Sort of Books.
As well as being entertaining, Maximum Diner raises serious concerns. Shortly before Nye decided to sell up, McDonald's opened a branch in Uckfield. Overnight, his takings plummeted. Yet the mayor of Uckfield welcomed McDonald's with open arms, arranging a ceremony in honour of its arrival. So long as towns like Uckfield discourage small businesses in this way, restaurateurs across the country (even owners of burger joints) will continue to struggle.