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    Can U.K. Smash Hit Leon Thrive in the U.S.?

  • Beloved in the U.K., Leon is betting Americans will be equally smitten by its “naturally” fast food

    Leon
    Leon's D.C. store reported some 3,600 transactions in its first week alone.

    Even over the phone, John Vincent’s enthusiasm is infectious. The CEO and cofounder of London-based fast-food chain Leon has an impressive resume—including time at Bain & Company and Procter & Gamble—which seems incongruous with his easygoing and affable manner. But while he may not be the stereotypical buttoned-up executive who takes himself too seriously, he does have an innovative drive that will prove necessary given Leon’s multifaceted mission.

    In September, the brand planted its first flag on American soil with a store in Washington, D.C. Since it was founded in 2004, the “Naturally Fast Food” concept has grown to 61 locations, including two outposts in the Netherlands, one in Norway, and now one in D.C.

    “I have always thought that bringing Leon to the home of fast food is something I need to do,” Vincent says. “I really believe that fast food deserves to be international, and it’s very much a part of youth culture. It’s very much a part of innovation and disruptive thinking.”

    The company has ambitions to fill a niche in foodservice that has proved stubbornly impenetrable: healthy fast food. Beyond that? Vincent wants to raise Leon to pop-culture status—on par with the likes of McDonald’s.

    First off, it’s fast food

    If this is starting to sound like the new-age dogma espoused by many a fast casual, Vincent will be the first to say, unequivocally, that Leon is fast food.

    “We are definitely fast food, and we’re not fast casual,” Vincent says. “I completely get that people use ‘fast casual’ to mean better-quality food, and we certainly are better fast food in our opinion. … However, if you come to Leon, we are very explicitly fast food.”

    For one, Leon doesn’t have the lengthy build-your-own make line. Similar to McDonald’s, the menuboard includes pictures of its 24 dishes. The kitchen—located in the back, not front and center—turns out orders so quickly that Vincent estimates throughput at just 30 seconds. And then there’s the price: All entrées are under $10, with most hovering around $7.50. It’s more expensive than value deals like Wendy’s 4 for $4, but also less than most fast casuals.

    Leon
    Although more American quick-serve chains are dipping their toes into global flavors, none boast a selection quite like Leon’s.

    Nevertheless, Leon’s menu does favor a next-generation fast casual rather than the classic fast-food purveyors of burgers, pizza, and fried chicken. Named for Vincent’s late father, Leon is inspired by Mediterranean cuisine, since both Vincent and cofounder Henry Dimbleby have roots in the region. Dimbleby served as CEO until 2014, when Vincent took over the role. The third cofounder, chef Allegra McEvedy, left the brand in 2009. Dimbleby and McEvedy remain shareholders.

    Although more American quick-serve chains are dipping their toes into global flavors, none boast a selection quite like Leon’s. Mediterranean dishes such as Lamb Kofte Kebab, Lebanese Mezze Salad, Chicken Lemon & Olive Tangine, and Moroccan Meatball Hot Box occupy the majority of the menu, but other international cuisines are featured in items like the Lentil Masala, Chicken Satay Hot Box, and Brazilian Black Bean Box.

    “I think the oxymoron of ‘naturally fast food’ is deliberately something that we’re happy to address because we want people to rethink fast food,” Vincent says. “We think fast food is worth falling back in love with.”

    Leon does have a few items that fall within fast-food tradition, but even they feature a twist. Instead of a standard burger, it serves three variations, none of which includes beef. Chicken tenders and fries are on the menu, but both are gluten free.

    The brand also holds firmly to its British heritage—another point of distinction among the growing legions of healthy/global chains. “In the U.K., [Leon] is known for being inspired by the Mediterranean diet, but [in the U.S.] we also can put ourselves in the category of British … and that does add some point of differentiation,” says Steph Gaspar, a marketing and communications manager for Leon. As a D.C. native, Gaspar was brought onboard to help the chain make its American debut.

    Some of the more British-leaning dishes include a Crispy Fish Wrap (not unlike fish and chips), and a Full English Breakfast Box with poached eggs, bacon, sausage, and beans. As Gaspar points out, British cuisine has long been a source of derision, but that reputation is changing.

    Leon
    If early indicators are to be believed, Leon is already off to a promising start.

    The British invasion

    Pret A Manger, another London-based concept, first tested its mettle in the American market nearly 20 years ago and has since spread across the Northeast and into Chicago. Although Pret is more of a grab-and-go café concept, it also focuses on better-for-you fare. And like Leon, it fits more into the traditional quick-service category than fast casual. The success of these two chains in their home country illustrates a key difference between limited service in the U.K. and U.S.

    “There is a strong demand in both countries for healthy meal options and quick in-and-out order and pickup opportunities,” says Stephen Dutton, a senior analyst for market research firm Euromonitor, in an email. “In the U.S., the demand for these [healthy] meal opportunities was met by a wave of fast casual–style chains, a segment that never really took off in the U.K.”

    Leon succeeded at a time when Super Size Me—Morgan Spurlock’s scathing documentary on the fast-food industry and McDonald’s in particular—was leading many, including British consumers, to rethink their eating habits. But whereas the U.K. was able to expand its perception of fast food to include healthier options like Pret and Leon, the category hasn’t fully shaken that negative connotation in the U.S.

    Another challenge facing Leon stateside is the quick-service landscape itself, which is more saturated in the U.S. than the U.K., Dutton says.

    “The difference is there is less open space in the U.S., especially for chain [quick-service] concepts, because this segment already has so much established competition,” Dutton says. “But there is always room for a new concept, international or not, that has the right mix of qualities that U.S. consumers will find attractive.”

    If early indicators are to be believed, Leon is already off to a promising start. The D.C. store reported some 3,600 transactions in its first week alone—nearly 26 percent more than it had anticipated. That trend continued in the subsequent months, with the store serving about 3,500 people each week, exceeding expectations. Not to mention, Leon has the support of two private equity groups. U.K.-based Active Partners has been involved since the very beginning, and last year Switzerland-based Spice Private Equity bought a large minority stake in the company—to the tune of £25 million—to fuel E.U. and U.S. growth.

    Part of that success might be location. As Vincent points out, D.C. is an open-minded, international city with a diverse population, many of whom travel overseas and some of whom are already familiar with Leon. The brand is already gearing up for a second D.C. location in the spring, but Vincent is more conservative in his growth plans than his business background might suggest. Rather than pursuing the biggest cities, he plans to first expand in second- and third-tier markets like Seattle, Denver, and Austin, Texas. “One day we would love to go to New York, but I sometimes find New York a little bit overwhelming,” Vincent says.

    "I definitely have constant, positive paranoia. I’m always alert for things that are going to go wrong—because they will—but not stressing anyone else out over them."  — John Vincent, CEO Of Leon.

    In an industry littered with failed concepts, this approach is a testament to the wisdom of Leon’s strategy. With sky-high rents and an excess of restaurants, New York City is far from the most hospitable environment to grow a chain, especially when mega brands like McDonald’s and Starbucks fill the blocks. Many a brand has marched into the Big Apple only to retreat, or in some cases, go out of business altogether.

    In contrast to this measured approach, Leon is aggressive when it comes to branding. The concept aspires to be nothing less than a cultural touchstone. It’s another reason Vincent is so adamant about Leon championing itself as a fast-food chain rather than a fast-casual one. For all the buzz that brands like Sweetgreen and Shake Shack have incited, they are not, by his estimation, on par with the original legacy brands.

    “McDonald’s delivers fun: fun meal deals, toys, kids’ parties,” Vincent says. “I don’t see the existing fast-casual operators embracing those sort of brand platforms or fun activities as maybe the fast-food players traditionally have. … I think fast-casual operators tend to talk more about food, and that’s fantastic, but what we want is to do both.”

    Adding Kung Fu to Fast Food

    Leon is now working to push the brand past the restaurants’ four walls. For one, it has an exclusive partnership with the U.K.’s upscale department store John Lewis & Partners, where consumers can buy the signature products. The selection ranges from serving ware such as an oak wood salad bowl and brightly hued casserole dish to cookware like a terra cotta tagine.

    Leon has also published more than a dozen cookbooks covering everything from fast vegetarian fare to one-pot meals. In a forthcoming publication, Vincent teams up with a professional martial artist to explore health and wellness beyond the realm of recipes. The book, called Winning, Not Fighting, applies the principles of Wing Tsun kung fu (a Chinese martial art) to business. “It’s kind of like the Leon spirit,” says Julian Hitch, director of wellbeing for Leon and a Wing Tsun master. “Fighting is actually the opposite of winning; it’s a waste of time, energy, effort. … We also see Leon as a way of spreading positivity and a nice culture wherever we go.”

    Hitch joined the team three years ago, and from the very start his role has centered around employees, not customers. While that position bears some semblance to the more common chief people officer, it is unmatched in its function. Hitch teaches employees Wing Tsun in an effort to not only address the physical challenges of a quick-service job, but to also cultivate a sense of mindfulness.

    “In hospitality, you don’t really appreciate the physicality of the nature of the business,” Hitch says. “They’re basically like athletes. They’re on their feet eight hours–plus a day; most athletes aren’t that physical.”

    Leon
    Having a calm and quick workforce gives Leon an edge in going toe-to-toe with fast-food players.

    Hitch’s work has yielded another positive outcome: better business. A few years back, he ran a pilot program where Leon staff underwent six weeks of Wing Tsun training. By the end, baristas had shaved up to 49 seconds off the time it took to correctly prepare six coffees. In tandem with increased efficiency, their heart rates had dropped from 100 to 60 beats per minute—a rate associated with a Zen state.

    Having a calm and quick workforce gives Leon an edge in going toe-to-toe with fast-food players.

    “What we wanted to do was take the lessons from that and standardize it,” Hitch says. “We were showing how to be quicker [with] minimum effort, maximum effect.” He adds that his personal goal is for staff to leave their Leon shift with more energy than when they started, despite the sometimes grueling nature of restaurant work.

    Hitch travels to each store to train wellbeing ambassadors who in turn teach their own teams. After the September opening, Hitch returned to D.C. in October to do just that at the first American location. “The way I see my job is to basically make myself redundant at Leon so it’s part of the culture,” he says.

    “Positive paranoia”

    If it seems as though Leon is ready to run like a well-oiled machine—or rather a Kung Fu–trained barista—Vincent will be the first to acknowledge that even the best-laid plans are susceptible to bumps along the road. “I think the best thing to say is that I definitely expect something to go wrong, but I don’t know what yet,” Vincent says. “I only want to get as big as we can without being bad. As soon as I think we’ve gotten so big that we’re in danger of dropping quality, then I will stop growing.”

    On the street level, Leon boasts the speed and price to do battle with McDonald’s and the like, but it is still untested in the drive-thru lane. It’s a challenge Vincent is looking forward to addressing, especially as Leon’s own foray into drive thru dovetails with tech advancements such as electric and self-driving cars. The brand prides itself on being environmental stewards, as demonstrated by its sustainably sourced ingredients and its 100 percent green energy–powered stores. “We have to be in drive thrus, but we have to do it our way,” Vincent says. Already he’s brainstorming initiatives like discounts for carpooling customers or a “cycle-thru” lane as a means of doubling down on that eco-friendly commitment.

    Taking sustainability a step further, Leon will likely face the same issue many fast casuals have been grappling with for a decade: how to source sustainably across disparate regions. The U.S. is vast in scale, especially compared with the U.K. and Europe. Even markets that are, by American standards, relatively close, may require a different system. “If we go to South Carolina, for example, I’d probably need a different supply chain from D.C. I think that’s going to be the biggest unknown,” Vincent says.

    But questions like that are still a ways down the line. For now, Leon is concentrating on strong but steady growth. The brand has teams dedicated to the three regions it’s targeting—the U.K., Europe, and the U.S.—which allows each group to focus solely on its market, Vincent says. In the E.U., he expects annual growth of four to five stores; the U.K. would be closer to eight, with the potential to grow to 15–20 in the future. Ideally, U.S. expansion will take the lion’s share in the future, but Vincent is reluctant to estimate numbers so early into the brand’s American tenure.

    For now, he’s sticking with cautious optimism. “I definitely have constant, positive paranoia. I’m always alert for things that are going to go wrong—because they will—but not stressing anyone else out over them. … A friend of mine said don’t worry until there’s something to worry about; however, I do kind of worry ahead of time deliberately,” he says with a laugh.