Q&A: John Vincent, Co-Founder, Leon


Fast food chain Leon launched in 2004 on London's Carnaby Street and has since opened more than 50 stores across the UK and The Netherlands. Here, co-founder John Vincent sits down with Retail Exchange Podcast host Ben Bland to discuss challenges, opportunities and motivating staff.

BB. What have been the biggest challenges you faced in growing within the food and beverage bit of the retail industry?

JV. There have probably been two. One is trying to reinvent fast food. There's a conundrum of taking fresh ingredients based on Mediterranean diet and getting those through a fast food process and getting the gross profit right, getting the wastage right. You know, the ability to still deliver fresh to the customer, as opposed to others who have, I guess, a frozen supply chain. That's probably been the ultimate challenge. We've also, I think, grown up in an environment in the UK where property is not only less available than elsewhere, say America, France even, but is also much more expensive. So, I think, you cannot afford to make property mistakes in the UK, and I think a lot of people do make property mistakes in the UK and we've made our share of those.

BB. It's interesting because in 2014 you took on the role of designing and choosing the menus, is that right?

JV. All of us were involved from 2004, but I think 2014 is a year that's mentioned because that's the year that I became CEO. Henry [Dimbleby] and I were joint CEOs for four or so years, at the start. Then there was a period where Henry was the CEO and I was more of a sort of semi-exec. Then in 2014, Henry and I decided it might be right for me to have a go.

BB. 'I've done it, it's your turn now', sort of thing?

JV. Yeah, exactly. There have been some changes in that period but we've always both been very focused on the menu.

BB. Tell me a little bit about how you run your business. How do you motivate staff, because a lot of the time, working in fast food can feel a bit uninspiring.

JV. I think you make a good point. The first thing to recognise is that the pay is not high. Secondly, it can be very early starts, very late nights; it can be quite monotonous. We think about it a lot [and] the biggest thing that we find is that camaraderie and the sense of family is the reason that people stay at Leon. The culture is very much based on positivity; catching people doing things right. There's a huge amount of celebrating when a customer writes in. We keep something called the GOB book, which is a Glimpse of Brilliance book, which is all the great things that have happened.

BB. The issues of sustainability; being ethically responsible and environmentally responsible are now very much in fashion. Does it frustrate you that others are joining that movement, and perhaps eating away at what you might have been able to flag up as a unique offering from Leon. Or, do you take a more moralistic view?

JV. I learn a martial art called Wing Chun, and, really, you just want everyone to do your martial art because you're always going to be a bit better than them at it because they're coming at it second. I'm delighted if others do it. I'm only ever frustrated if others pretend they're doing it and they're not doing it.

At the heart of what we're trying to do is to match the nutritional and, I guess, spiritual needs of the individual with the ecological needs of the planet. So we're saying, first and foremost, we want this food to nourish, nurture and to make people feel good after they've eaten it. When it comes to the environment, we have four major things that we're looking at and that we continue to look at. One is moving away from red meat consumption. The second is going from oil-based fuels to renewable. Thirdly, we have been progressively eliminating plastics, even ahead of the current craze to do so. And then we're also looking at a huge focus on waste, so by the end of this year we will not be putting any waste to landfill.

BB. I get the sense that you and your family are very much involved in a hands-on way with Leon. So much so that, is it once a year you host the managers of all the stores at your house?

JV. Yes, all the managers, all the support team. It's about 85 people now. Actually, no, it's about 100 people now.

BB. How do you fit them all in?

JV. Well, first of all, people are quite happy to sleep on the floor. Secondly, for the summer one we do have tents. It's a wonderful experience. When [competitors] try and beat Leon, I think they think they're competing with a company, and actually, they're competing with a family.

BB. Have you always been passionate about the food and beverage side of things? Is that where you see your career staying, or do you have ambitions to do other things in retail or even beyond?

JV. I'm someone that understands the value of focus and that isn't always good at doing it. I think, to answer your question, I know I have to focus on Leon, but... So, we're about to launch a Thai version of Leon with a chef called David Thompson who's undoubtedly the best Thai chef in the world. That is an opportunity, I think, for me to have my play pen or my sand pit without compromising the main business. I do think that anything which feeds the human spirit and protects the planet is in scope for me in the future, but I have to follow through on quite a lot of operational changes in Leon, a lot of geographical growth in Leon before I can have too big a sand pit elsewhere.

BB. And where might that growth come, do you think? Where are the opportunities?

JV. The opportunity for Leon with the database that we have to offer broader food and wellbeing services. The opportunity to do food in grocery that allows people to eat well, so a whole category that allows people to enjoy vegetables more, I can see that. Also, I can see there being a whole bunch of other cuisines that we can address with fast food - Chinese, Mexican, Indian.

BB. Looking broadly at World Retail Congress, which is where we're speaking in Madrid, what made you come here?

JV. I've got to admit, I had no idea how good it was. This is a brilliant congress. What I'm struck by is the vision that is offered here about what retailing can be and the gulf that exists between that and what you still see on the high street. I'm fascinated by the pace of, and route of change.

To listen to the full interview, visit www.theretailexchange.co.uk

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