The restaurant group plans to open the first of its Asian-focused restaurants in April, according to John Vincent, who co-founded Leon in 2004. The new concept will be “more in the Asian space using the Leon-type kitchen,” he says.
Leon is also set to open a further 20 sites across Europe over the next two years as part of its partnership with food travel specialist HMSHost International.
The companies, which currently run nine Leon’s together in the UK and Netherlands, are looking to open in transport hubs in Belgium, Germany and Scandinavia, as well as airports in France, Spain, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Vincent told BigHospitality Leon would “definitely” look to eventually expand to European high streets, and last year signed a deal with UMOE Restaurants to open sites in Norway and Sweden.
He says the boom in vegan and plant-based restaurant openings would only make Leon “more relevant” as a brand as it expands.
“The desire for healthy food is getting stronger...at one point we were seen as the weirdo food, now the market’s moved towards us,” says Vincent.
Leon’s founders are on record saying their long-term goal is to be more valuable than McDonald’s, and Vincent told Restaurant magazine in 2015 his aim was for the group to reach what was then a quarter of the size of the fast food giant’s estate – a little under 10,000 restaurants.
However, he has since revised the figure down to 5,000, but believes the brand could eventually eye further expansion across the globe to China, Australia and India.
The group will open a further six to 10 sites in the UK this year, as well as its first US site in a high street location in Washington DC this autumn.
Vincent is optimistic that Leon could the first British brand to really break America, and sees potential for an eventual 500-1,000 sites across The Pond, as well as more than 200 in the UK.
“We’re going to make loads of mistakes we don’t even know we’re going to make,” he says.
“It’s easy to watch West Wing or Friends and think you understand America but it’s not that simple. We’ve got to go in with a real lack of ego, learn adapt and change. Only then can we do our second store.”
Leon, which saw 6-9% like-for-like growth in December and January, will continue to evolve as it expands, adds Vincent.
“Some businesses in this space grow too fast. All these things must be natural branches off the tree trunk, we can’t be planting a whole new orchard over here.
“What you see now in Leon is not yet our best work.
“Inevitably there’s that constant change that comes from what the customers want. They want to know the brand’s got a heartbeat and there’s people behind it that are still innovating.”