The rise of Leon Restaurants – how they turned ‘healthy eating’ into a global business

Leon restaurantFounded in 2004 by former Bain & Co management consultants Henry Dimbleby (48) and John Vincent (47), along with chef Allegra McEvedy (48), Leon has become one of the fastest growing restaurant brands in the UK, taking advantage of the vegan and healthy eating zeitgeist.

The company recently employed its 1000th member of staff, opened its 63rd restaurant and is also now operating in the USA.

Its growth has been fuelled by funding from Active Private Equity and Spice Private Equity, with SPE becoming the company’s largest shareholders in May 2017 following a £25m deal.

Regarding its current financial performance, Leon currently operates revenues of £58.4m (2017) and is set for huge growth in 2019.

Lack of healthy fast food

Leon Restaurants’ journey began when Henry and John were travelling up and down the motorways for meetings across the UK.

Shereen Ritchie, Operations Director for Leon Restaurants explains: “John and Henry had become completely disillusioned with life as consultants, travelling up and down the country, stopping at service stations and eating bad fast food.

“They ended up going to sleep because it made them tired and then they would wake up feeling fat. They were not getting the opportunity in their fast-paced lives to be able to live well and eat well. There was nowhere that would offer them something that was convenient, tasty, healthy, and that was good fuel to put in their bodies. So, they decided to start Leon.

The company opened its first restaurant in Carnaby Street, London, in 2004, with a second restaurant opening a year later in Ludgate.

Fast forward to 2014, and the chain now had 20 restaurants and an impressive menu, featuring an extensive array of locally-sourced, vegan and vegetarian food. The company also has a range of vegan cookbooks, inspired by their founders.

Going global

Once it was an established name in the London and UK food scene, the company started to look internationally.

Shereen comments: “A big milestone for us was in the summer of 2016 when we went to Schiphol in Amsterdam, and opened our very first international restaurant. We now have nine international restaurants: five in the Netherlands, two in Norway, one in Gran Canaria, one in the USA, and we’ve also got one in Dublin, which is going to open in spring 2019.”

Arguably their most important new market is the USA, where it is traditionally quite difficult for UK restaurants to succeed.

The company will be opening its second restaurant in the country later this year – joining the first in Washington DC.

However, international expansion hasn’t been without its challenges.

Shereen continues: “It can be really hard when you’re going into new territory. For Leon it’s not easy because we want to source everything locally – we’re not going to suddenly just start shipping everything.  So, this means that the supply chain must be done pretty much from scratch and it makes it really challenging.

“We don’t want to put things on boats or an aeroplane, because that isn’t sustainable.

“Our aim is to be able to support local communities. We want to be able to support everyone eating well, living well, in the right way and doing the right thing.”

Double digit growth

With an ever-growing network of restaurants appearing in the UK and across the world, Leon has reported exponential growth over the last few years.

Shereen comments: “The financial growth of the company has been incredible. In 2018, like-for-like sales were up 15% from the year before. We have gone into 2019 with double digit like-for-like growth again. Our success has come from wanting to do the right thing. We don’t just make something that will make us lots of money, we like to make something that vegans will absolutely love.

“And not just vegans – we want to make everyone happy by having lots of plant-based foods, and show people that you have more options out there.”

Capturing the vegan zeitgeist

The rise of veganism has been an important part of the business’s strong growth, with the company reporting a 21% increase in vegan sales between January 2017 to January 2018.

It’s not only capturing the vegan zeitgeist that has demonstrated Leon’s commitment to innovation and understanding the mood of the consumer.

Shereen explains: “I truly believe that we’re at the forefront of innovation – we do set the trends, we don’t just identify them. We’re working towards helping people understand the importance of plants tasting amazing.

“We really want to revolutionise fast food, but we also want to show that there’s a better way that we can do business. You can be successful and you can still be kind to yourself, you can be kind to each other, you can be kind to the planet, and we can prove that this model works.”

What does the future hold?

With the casual dining sector undergoing a metamorphosis, it’s interesting to see how Leon view the future.

Shereen comments: “There has been a shift in business that has come along with an increase in knowledge about sustainability and the planet. I think people understand that big businesses have a responsibility. It isn’t just about making lots of money, it’s about a responsibility to do it in the right way. That has become far more prolific now than it was years ago and it’s going to shape the future.”

Shereen says that people’s attitudes to food consumption will also continue to change.

She continues: “I think that people are more willing to eat out and in London we’ve seen a massive growth of breakfast time delivery. This has revolutionised the way people are eating, as well as the emergence of Deliveroo, Uber, and Just Eat.

“The standard of food is improving too. There have been some good examples over the past years, as well as some shocking examples where people failed to innovate because they failed to understand how people are becoming more advanced in their knowledge of food and so want different things to what they used to want. This trend will only intensify.”