Business profile: Leon

By Paul Wootton

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Fast food restaurant

Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent set up fast food chain Leon after spotting a gap in the market. And they’ve got some pretty ambitious plans, including going worldwide.

Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent set up fast food chain Leon after spotting a gap in the market. And they’ve got some pretty ambitious plans, including going worldwide.

When I meet Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, two of the co-founders of Leon, one cold January lunchtime, they’re having a right giggle. Maybe it’s because their chain of eight fast food restaurants has performed particularly well over Christmas. Or because the Spitalfields Leon in which we’re sat is teeming with contented customers. While these are both true, it turns out that what they’re laughing at is Dimbleby’s chapped lips. He’s applied some balm and it looks like he’s wearing lipstick. When I mention that our photographer will be arriving later, an anxious Dimbleby exclaims, “Photographs?!” and the two hoot with laughter again.

The camaraderie and sense of fun that Leon’s co-founders exude is integral to the company they have created. You can see it in the menu descriptions, the old family holiday snaps hanging on the walls, the cheerful, smiling faces of staff (or family members as the company calls them). It is also, you sense integral to the chain’s success, one reason why this Spitalfields Leon served 690 people on the first working day back in January, and why Giles Coren wrote such a glowing review in The Times, calling Leon "the future" and "a miracle" soon after the first Leon opened in Carnaby Street in 2004.

But Coren was also mightily impressed by the conscientiously sourced food – and the fact that it tasted so good. Some 70 per cent of Leon’s ingredients are sourced from within the UK and the company takes great pains to ensure the 10 per cent sourced outside of the EU is fair-trade and shipped in rather than air-freighted. The idea behind Leon, explains Vincent, is best understood by thinking, “What if God did fast food?” so it’s fun and lively but it’s also good quality, good value and good for the environment too.

They may have very sunny dispositions but Dimbleby and Vincent are astute operators too. While neither had run restaurants before, both worked for leading management consultancy Bain, an experience that meant they have always “been focused on the financial as well as the product”, according to Vincent. Both are smart analysts of the market and recognised there was a gap in it for quality fast food. Looking back now, Vincent dismisses that recognition – or “Eureka moment” as he puts it – as irrelevant. “It’s when did I spend the 1,000 hours to make that idea happen,” he says “Ideas are easy. It’s executing them that’s hard.”

And some of it was very hard, agrees Dimbleby. “I don’t think we realised how difficult it would be to get the food good,” he explains. “We’ve spent hours and hours and hours on that.”

And not everything has worked, as they freely admit. Scrambled egg, for example, which they kicked off the menu. “It’s really hard to make in a fast food environment,” explains Dimbleby.

With little experience of the restaurant industry (though Dimbleby had worked as a chef when he was younger), the pair have had to learn fast – and have been wise enough to call on those who do have the experience. They are keen to pay tribute to the rest of their team; to co-founder and former River Cafe chef Allegra McEvedy, finance director Simon Drysdale, head chef Ben Peverelli and commercial director James Backhouse; and also express their gratitude to many of their peers in the industry for their support and advice, people such as James Horler, Ian Neill, Steve Hill, Robin Rowland and Simon Kossof.

“When you’re entrepreneurs you have to be careful to work out what you do well and what the industry does well. When Leon was young, there were things that we did that were 20 times better than anyone else was doing – that’s why people noticed us. And then there were pretty basic things we did 100 times worse because we were not restaurant people,” says Dimbleby. “Things like dealing with waste, disciplines around ordering, rotas etc, day to day training of the team. Operations. How to get a broken pipe fixed quick.”

Kirsty Fonzari, formerly of La Tasca, was hired last year to put more efficient systems in place. According to Dimbleby, her impact has already been huge. “You can’t try to build everything from scratch,” adds Vincent. “You have to get in great people who have done it before – but at the same time continuing to believe in what you did differently and the fact that it will work.”

And work it certainly has. The fast food concept – these are not full-service restaurants – allows large numbers of customers to be served. “It’s that that allows you to take a smaller margin across the board and keep prices low,” says Dimbleby.

The figures certainly stack up. Leon in Carnaby Street does on average £30,000 a week out of 1,200 sq ft – impressive revenues in anyone’s book. Across the eight sites, the overall average is £20,000, with an average spend per head at lunch just under £6 and at dinner around £8; then there are teas and coffees in between.

They’ve had to shut one site, on Brompton Road, because there was no evening trade, lunches were slow and “you couldn’t see the tills from the street”. The visibility of tills in now one of their key criteria when deciding on a site because “it lets people know that you’re not a cafe, that you do fast food”, explains Dimbleby.
This year the company will focus on its food and service, but Leon’s long-term goal is to have 2,000 sites worldwide. That isn’t arrogance, stresses Dimbleby. “The reason for saying that is that it really affects decisions we make now all the time. About what your offer is, how you serve it and so on. We believe that fast food at the moment isn’t that great and there will be three or four players globally who will be up there. If you want to be one of them then you need to have an eye on that goal.” But, he adds, “The number of sites is irrelevant. Everyone’s obsessed by it.”

Vincent agrees. “Coffee Republic’s Bobby Hashemi gave us advice early on. He said,‘Everyone was congratulating me because I had 40 sites, but hardly any of them were making money. Don’t make the number of sites the measure of the success of your company, make it profit.’”

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