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.