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Leon restaurant group: 21st century take-away

22 June 2006
Leon restaurant group: 21st century take-away

John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, two of the three founders of new take-away restaurant group Leon, are certainly hands-on. Sitting outside their Brompton Road branch in London, Dimbleby is chatting to an American customer as if they're old friends. Vincent, meanwhile, is working the pavement. He has just charmed two slightly embarrassed young women into ordering, and has now turned his sights on a bemused-looking family of tourists. "This way, please," he beckons. And they follow.

It could be like watching the curry touts on the city's Brick Lane, except that this seems nothing like a hustle. Instead, both owners are wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Their promise - and it's a promise that is shaking up perceptions of take-away food - is that they can serve fast food that isn't bad food, and freshly cooked meals that aren't death to the wallet.

Outside the restaurant, potential diners lap it up; inside, the queue stretches to the door. Everyone leaves with a smile. It's all so idyllic and fun that you forget these guys are also about to make serious money.

And that is what Leon is now doing. Last week, Vincent and Dimbleby, both in their mid-30s - together with third co-founder Allegra McEvedy - opened their fourth restaurant in a little less than two years, all in London. The first came in July 2004 in Carnaby Street, serving 800 covers a day and turning over nearly £25,000 every week; the second opened just over a year later at Ludgate Circus, achieving similar receipts; the third, this May, was the Knightsbridge outpost; and the most recent, last week, is in Spitalfields Market.

Nor will they stop there. The next Leon will open before the end of the year on the Strand. Dimbleby says that the company has identified as many as 300 streets in the UK which are ripe for a Leon. Vincent is looking even further, and suggests as many as 2,000 worldwide by 2020. They are talking mainstream - they are talking about taking on McDonald's.

This success - and optimism - stems from the fact that Leon has done what most restaurateurs can only dream of and has tapped into the food desires of our age. While rising awareness of the importance of good food is all around us, the actual food itself is not always there to match.

Describing how the idea for the restaurant came about, Dimbleby (son of BBC broadcaster David and food writer Josceline) recalls that he was "standing in front of a neon-lit chiller cabinet faced with either greasy food or sandwiches. It was a case of working out which one I'd least mind having to eat." That's an experience many will have shared, but which Leon is hoping
to change.

At the time of his eureka moment, Dimbleby, a former chef, was working with childhood friend Vincent, both as management consultants. Vincent shared his frustration exactly, and they began to discuss seriously how to reverse the dominance of industrialised and processed food in the casual and take-away dining market.

They teamed up with chef McEvedy, another old friend - old friends are an important part of Leon's infrastructure - who had been working at Tabernacle in the capital's Notting Hill and most recently for the Royal Parks. She has also cooked at the River Café and TriBeCa Grill in New York. They toured the country, speaking to family and friends about raising the required cash and, equally importantly, finding out what people would like to eat. Soon they had the £500,000 needed to open the first site, plus a whole list of recipes.

Healthy but cheap
Leon's food message of healthy but cheap fast food is a simple and honest one (see right), but the name itself and the styling of the restaurants prove that the trio are no innocents when it came to marketing. In fact, Vincent used to work for P&G in cosmetics marketing, and hearing him describe the reason for naming Leon you'd know it. "We wanted a name that didn't mean anything, that looked nice on a blank canvas," he says, "and one to which people could attach their own emotions."

"Leon" is actually the name of Vincent's father (he makes an appearance in a late-1950s photograph in the Carnaby Street branch), but it fulfilled his brief perfectly. Not "meaning anything" (there is, though, that cool connection to Luc Besson's cult 1990s film) means an anti-branded, non-corporate vision. Each restaurant's design, therefore, is slightly different, with individualised facades, layouts and interiors. The Leon in Brompton Road is more café, say, while the one in Ludgate Circus is more canteen. Kensington is more relaxed, with more shoppers; the City, more functional, with more suits.

The interiors are filled with knick-knacks. Books, pictures and furniture are mostly mismatched. There are blackboards and comment postcards, and messages on the menus urging diners to tell them what they think - and promising a reply. Evening menus are pasted to the insides of old comic annuals, while the daytime version is awash with cute illustrations and banter.

It's not all silliness, however. As well as feeding people more healthily, there is a serious approach to making the business more ethical, sourcing food sustainably and adopting environmentally sound practices. The trio do not, for example, buy fruit or any other product that has been air-freighted. They also have targets of sourcing at least 70% of their food from within the UK, and 90% from within Europe. At the moment, they have achieved 63% and 84%.

However, they are reluctant to be heralded as environmental crusaders. "Our objectives are very clear," says Vincent. "We want to serve great-tasting food, that does you good, that has as positive an impact as possible on the environment and farms. But what we are starting to understand is that there are trade-offs."

Dimbleby says, for example, that they cannot go down the organic route because, at the moment, that would push their prices up by too much. "We would then become part of a niche market for rich people, when what we want to do is feed as many people as possible," he says.

However, as the business grows, they believe they can feel their way towards a more unified ethical approach. "Once you get to a certain size, for example," Dimbleby says, "you can actually start investing in farms. You can ask your chicken farmers to become properly free-range, because you can promise them a guaranteed amount of business."

There is also talk of meeting both the Soil Association and Zac Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist and an environmental spokesman. "If we can imagine having as many as 2,000 Leons worldwide, already in that vision there is a statement about what we want to do," Vincent says.

Of course, these are still early days, and with that sort of expansion on the cards, there are also difficulties. With a brand as idiosyncratic as Leon, employing like-minded people who believe in the vision can be a challenge. But the trio have ideas.

"One thing we have developed is to offer our staff a reward of £500 if they find us someone suitable to be a manager, and if the recommendation works out," says Dimbleby. "It is very hard to know if a person is right after two hours of interviews. But if it's a friend of a friend, you've done the hardest part of the screening already." Managers are called "mum" or "dad", assistant managers are "auntie" or "uncle" and team members are "brother" or "sister", just to complete the family feel.

Right sites Another concern is finding the right sites. Although they have identified 300 potential locations in the UK, there is a worry that the new restaurant-licensing category of A5 (for take-aways) could hinder them. It is now harder to win an A5 licence, because the Government wanted to protect town centres from too many fast-food operations. Dimbleby suggests, however, that the new laws may also be about protecting vested interests.

"We don't think we're an A5 as it is, but it seems to be a classic example of poor law-making in this country," he says. "The Government consulted people such as KFC, Burger King and McDonald's, chains which had reached saturation point already and didn't want there to be any more take-away restaurants."

Dimbleby himself would love there to be even more operations like theirs in the marketplace - and with operations such as Fresh Italy in London and Blackstone's in Bath, for example, they seem to be appearing. "But for that to happen," he says, "the Government has got to realise that we are not the rubbish-spreading, noise-causing type of restaurant that they were trying to legislate against."

If similar restaurants were to expand, another challenge would be maintaining the food's freshness and quality. In the early 1990s, Pret A Manger ushered in a new era of freshly prepared food for take-away, but then went through a low point as the product suffered when the business expanded.

Original Pret frontman Julian Metcalf came back on board after the chain had been sold to McDonald's, and reversed the slide, but is this a lesson Leon has learnt? "We actually have a lot of respect for people like Julian Metcalf," Vincent says. "Pret managed to make fresh sandwiches. If we can maintain that quality, we'll be happy."

However, you can forget talk of rolling the brand out and selling it on. There is an endearing sense at Leon that they are still making it up as they go along, and you can't imagine any of them getting bored. "We gave up our jobs to do this because it's a passion," says Vincent. "I want my kids and grandkids to enjoy this. I do not want to give it up."

With that, he bounces round to talk to two other customers who have joined the conversation, as everyone who comes within two metres of the pair unwittingly seems to do. "We will never sell it while we are still alive," he promises them, refreshingly free of corporate equivocation. "And if we ever do, ladies, you can come back here and spank my bottom in public."

Now, that certainly is hands-on. Their customers leave looking startled, but also rather pleased.

Food at Leon In the UK at least, freshly cooked food has not gone hand-in-hand with cheap take-away fare. Leon and its chef, Allegra McEvedy, are overturning that received wisdom by offering the likes of roasted sweet potato falafel for £2.95, mackerel summer couscous for £3.95 and grilled chicken with salsa verde for £5.70.

"We start with what's in season, because there's a glut, so it's cheap," McEvedy says. "Then we work up through the flavours, relying on bold and strong tastes rather than extra ingredients or salt." Mediterranean and meze-style dishes are common, as well as stews and soups.

While most of the menu is assembled and cooked in a small kitchen at each restaurant, sauces, soups, vinaigrettes and stews are prepared at a production kitchen (called the "big kitch"). "This gives us control and consistency," McEvedy says.

In a display of understanding not usually associated with fast food, the menu is also big on wheat-free, vegetarian and dairy-free options, with indicator symbols to help those with dietary concerns. Fruit sugar and superfoods - which have known health-boosting properties - are also in abundance.

However, the trio are determined that people come to Leon for treats as well as health. So there are milk shakes, hot chocolate (made with Valrhona flakes) and brownies (made with almonds instead of flour).

Breakfast is served as well as lunch, and in the evening a slightly more expensive, though still good value, menu is available, with average spend going up to £12, from £7 during the day.

Leon at a glance

  • Name: Leon
  • Owners: John Vincent, Henry Dimbleby, Allegra McEvedy (above)
  • Number of sites: four
  • Initial investment: £500,000
  • Turnover: Between £20,000 and £25,000 per restaurant per week
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