Food for thought

London-based restaurant chain Leon has created a market for wholesome, gastronomically impressive, sustainable ‘fast food’. John Vincent, Co-founder, reveals the key ingredients forming what is fast becoming an iconic UK brand, with an admirable reputation.

Think of ‘fast food’ and several things come to mind, some good and many bad. The good: speed, convenience, cost. The bad: neon and plastic, under-motivated staff, and food that’s as bad for your health as it can be in taste.

Now imagine a world where all the bad is removed, where you are speedily served a wholesome and tasty meal in a welcoming environment by happy staff. This is Leon’s world, where as Co-founder John Vincent explains, “the purpose is to make it easy for everyone to eat good food.”

Imagined by Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, before Leon was founded in 2004 as ‘fast food in heaven’, the aim was clear. “We wanted to take the fast food city-centre format, with a self-service counter, but with freshness, flavour and fun in the food, served by people who smile because they feel like smiling, not because someone has told them to.”

Creating and continually nurturing this environment has been core to Vincent and Dimbleby’s approach in building a unique brand identity and internal culture. It has meant that Leon has quickly developed an excellent reputation for going the extra mile to make customers and colleagues happy.

Rapidly growing from one to a chain of 13 restaurants across London, Leon is working towards its aim of sourcing 70% of its food from the UK and 90% from within the EU. It has also published several well-received cookbooks. The admirable and wholesome ethos of the company and its founders was recently recognised by Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has tasked the pair with undertaking a review of England’s school meals service, with the aim to produce an action plan for improvements. “We’ve already started the process,” says Vincent. “We’re talking to children about what works and what doesn’t work about their school dinners. Overall, we’re keen that what we come up with is followed through – we want any improvements to start immediately.”

As Leon has expanded, Vincent explains that he and Dimbleby have worked hard to maintain their reputation for producing high quality food. “We went through a phase, as we grew from two restaurants to six or seven, where we had to make sure that we weren’t going backwards and we have really pushed our suppliers to maintain the quality of produce. We also found as we opened more sites that consistency was beginning to suffer, so we stepped up and standardised our training procedures.”

Staff contentment is a key priority. From initial interview to ongoing role development, Leon’s people are encouraged to engage with the brand, contributing ideas and with direct access to senior management, who can often be found behind the counter or at the till. “All the people who work with us are in-house, from designers to PR,” says Vincent. “All our ideas come from within. We promote people internally, often changing the area in which they work entirely. This keeps the Leon culture undiluted.

“I hear some CEOs saying ‘I’m a delegator’, or ‘I’m controlling’. That’s like a pilot saying ‘when I’m flying, I only ever go left’. You have to know when to go up, when to go down, when to go right.  You have to recognise that individuals are motivated by different things and be able to adapt as a manager. Also, there should be no conspiracies. If someone has done something wrong tell them, don’t have them guessing what you think of them. We don’t want any cliques, any politics.”

The company is proactive in the social media space, with staff at all levels involved in creating a regular video blog and with free access to the Facebook site to upload ideas, photographs and updates. “We also have a quarterly internal award ceremony,” Vincent adds.

Leon’s branding is interesting, in that there is no distinct logo or single identifiable visual identity. “Our brand is the culture of the company, not the logo,” emphasises Vincent. “We have no logo, no brand colours, we have lots of different expressions of who we are. Just like my Mum doesn’t have a logo, but she has a ‘brand’ as being the kindest person I know – and she is consistent about this.

“As long as we live true to what we are, then that is our brand.”

5 business lessons

  1. Don’t go to extremes: Being a CEO is about making constant trade-offs while holding a steady course
  2. Entrepreneurism isn’t about positivity to the exclusion of all else: People forget the detail and the diligence involved
  3. Be accountable for your failures: Don’t complain or blame other people
  4. Give up all hope of a better past: Accept it, and move on
  5. Don’t read too many self-help books: Don’t spend your life reading about what your business idols have done, just get on and do it


For more information visit: www.leonrestaurants.co.uk

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK