Healthy fast food chain Leon recently announced it is to expand into the US market after receiving a £25m boost in funding.
When its first store opened in London’s Carnaby Street in 2004, there was a clear gap in the market for fresh, healthy and over-the-counter food in the UK – so it’s not hard to see why Leon has since enjoyed such growth. It now has nearly 50 restaurants in locations including Brighton and Nottingham.
But, with the healthy-food industry now pretty diluted, will the brand find similar success in the US? Here’s a breakdown of what I think could help to set Leon apart.
Whether it’s Vital Ingredient or Nandos (without the chips), there are certainly places to find healthy food on the British high street. However, Leon aims to offer a triple threat – fast food that’s not bad for you, a menu that offers variety and comfort, and an arguably affordable price tag.
It is a combination that other chains don’t offer. Or if they do, they pre-prepare and refrigerate it.
Leon’s dedication to freshly cooked food – for breakfast, lunch and dinner – means that it’s a reliable option for on-the-go foodies, designed to be a place that you actually want to eat rather than a last resort.
Again, this might be a reflection of the lack of alternatives here in the UK – something that could already be covered by the proliferation of delis and health food stores in the US. However, a reaction against even more of an onslaught of unhealthy fast food joints could also go in its favour.
One of the main features that sets Leon apart is its focus on design, both in terms of the packaging and branding, and the restaurants themselves.
Unlike brands such as Innocent, which rely on cutesy and overly friendly copywriting to convey a message, Leon delivers it through more of a visual approach – using simple touches to denote the freshness and flavour of its food.
Restaurant menus largely use images instead of words, and meals are packaged in plain brown boxes and bags sealed with Leon’s signature sticker.
There’s no shouting about health or nutrition either – you’ll notice the words focus on evoking the taste of the food rather than any health benefits or its nutritional value. That’s not to say it’s not there though. The website menu is particularly impressive, including nutritional info for each item, with ticks to signify healthy choices a cheeky little devil’s fork icon used to highlight ‘treats’.
There’s also a nifty filter system to choose between options like ‘I don’t eat dairy’ and even mood, e.g. ‘It’s rainy’.
Meanwhile, Leon’s dedication to design spills over into its restaurants, where there is no mistaking its signature interior style. It’s deliberately mismatched, using bright colours, books and even vintage photographs of the founder’s family to convey the brand’s history.
Of course, like any large or growing restaurant chain, it’s hard to maintain a sense of true authenticity – but Leon’s clear design strategy certainly helps maintain its original values.
Culture and sustainability
Another reason I personally like Leon is that it is hot on current issues relating to health, the environment, and sustainability.
In 2013, Leon’s co-founders, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, were asked by the then UK Secretary of State for Education to conduct a review of school food, which eventually led to the implementation of Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM). Unsurprisingly, the company has recently pledged support to keep the initiative after the government announced plans to change it.
Leon has also shown commitment to other issues, such as flexible working hours for staff, fairtrade, and the sugar tax. What’s more, it’s also clear that Leon’s values extend to its internal culture.
While the service industry is notoriously hard work and low paid, Leon fosters an open and collaborative working environment. Just one final example – when it opened a new restaurant in the heart of London’s West End, it employed 40 up-and-coming singers to create an all-singing, all-dancing Leon.
I doubt you’d get that in a Chipotle, would you?