Founded in the UK in 2004, 80-strong naturally fast food chain LEON has been on a mission to make fast food good food ever since. The brand’s Managing Director, Glenn Edwards and Marketing Director, Mariam French, speak to 5THWAVE about restaurant and retail product expansion, a focus on neighbourhood locations and a new chapter as part of global retail operator, EG Group
The LEON dream began when they asked: ‘Why can’t fast food be good food?’ | Photo credit: LEON
Where is LEON present today?
GE – Currently we have around 80 stores, including five restaurants in the Netherlands. We’ve historically been quite London-centric, and since the EG Group acquisition our ambition has been to become more accessible across the UK. We’ve a good pipeline for 2022 openings, with plenty lined up for 2023.
Aside from our London stores, where we’re split across the City and West End, we also have locations in Manchester, Oxford, Birmingham, Brighton and Leeds.
We’ve opened our second drive-thru site in Harrogate as part of our journey to become a less city-centric brand. The important question for us now is where do people want to eat food – and that’s ever changing.
Where is LEON seeking outlet expansion?
GE – We want to have multiple audiences, so it’s important for us to be located around where people are, including tourist attractions, entertainment hubs, shopping and retail. Residential areas are also playing a big part, as are office worker locations.
It’s interesting how many workplaces now want a food-to-go chain nearby to attract people back to their offices. That’s going to be ever more present. For our traditional full format stores, it’s about maximising footfall and minimising risk by being present at the maximum number of dayparts. There’s something joyous about the LEON brand that we straddle breakfast, lunch and dinner really well.
We’ve also got two drive-thru stores now – we’re by no means experts but we’re learning quickly. We’ve found that customers don’t want to be mid-way through the journey when they visit us, they want to be towards the end, so it’s about finding those locations that will have healthy traffic flow in areas where people are hungry.
What business synergies has LEON cultivated since its acquisition by EG Group?
GE – People often ask: ‘why, EG Group?’ – but it’s the perfect combination. The inspiration for LEON came when two of the founders, John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, were driving around the UK and became frustrated with the older generation of fast-food outlets.
The LEON dream began when they asked: ‘Why can’t fast food be good food?’ So, it’s almost poetic to have been acquired by a company with deep roots in motorway foodservice outlets. They’re great partners and there’s a lot of respect between LEON and EG Group.
How is your marketing strategy evolving with new locations, store formats and products?
MF – When we launch a restaurant, we review and evaluate the locality and type of demographics, to ensure we launch in a relevant way. In London, we are fortunate to have a strong brand recognition due to a loyal following and so we can showcase innovation and new dishes which we introduce as part of our seasonal menu change five times a year.
In other parts of the UK where there is less brand awareness we focus on our ‘hero’ dishes, such as our Ruby Red porridge, Aioli Chicken Rice Box or Avocado Halloumi Muffin. To use an analogy, we look at it like a book. When we launch in new areas, we simply turn to an earlier chapter of our brand story and focus a little more on our core.
Our grocery range is a separate business but based in the same headquarters and we work very closely together. There are many synergies and it’s great to know that when dishes do well in our restaurants they’re successful on the grocery side.
We love to talk to our guests as much as possible. We regularly hold customer feedback sessions.
We also do a ‘Big Listen’ survey every year with circa 200,000 of our club members and we’ve been very humbled to see how our brand presence has grown in the UK and internationally.
“Now is the time for us to expand into more European markets. We’ve had some great success in the Netherlands that we want to build on and there are many lessons learned”
How will you market LEON’s premium offer amid growing cost of living pressures?
MF – We always challenge ourselves with every single menu launch to offer variety and choice for our guests. We were the first UK brand to launch Poached Egg pots, which start at £1.99 ($2.40) and our pro-biotic yoghurt pot starts at £2.99 ($3.60). We’ll always challenge ourselves to offer an entry-level price point menu across breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Ultimately, we’ve seen through previous recessions and the current cost of living crisis that customers still want to spend but they want maximum value-for-money. Where a customer may have previously taken a client for a top-end steak dinner, they may instead go to a really great place for lunch, grab a chicken and rice box and a smoothie and finish off with a cake bar.
We see ourselves as fitting into that affordable luxury spot. Delivering value-for-money through taste, freshness and quality will keep driving more guests to us.
What’s on the horizon for LEON’s development in the near term?
GE – The future feels like a long way off sometimes but in all honesty, it’s more of the same. It’s LEON’s 18th birthday this year; a restaurant business is not that different from a person – as you grow up you go through different stages of maturity. At 18 we’re much more comfortable in our skin, a bit more tested and focused and we’re ready for further growth.
Now is the time for us to expand into more European markets. We’ve had some great success in the Netherlands that we want to build on and there are many lessons learned. In the UK we’re still a very London-centric brand and we’re aiming to be a business that everyone can access. That’s why we should have a presence in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – so watch this space in the medium term.
This article was first published in Issue 12 of 5THWAVE magazine.
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