How UK's Leon redefined the fast food industry
LEON Co-Founder Henry Dimbleby speaks during his keynote opening session at the Fast Casual Summit taking place this week in Seattle.
Ask Leon Restaurants Co-Founder Henry Dimbleby to share lessons learned in launching his fast food fast casual brand and be prepared to take notes, to learn and to laugh as he relates how he and Co-Founder John Vincent went about establishing the quick-service brand and vision of what fast food should be.
The partners, who began sharing their philosophy of the future of fast food during work commutes over 15 years ago, have been bonafide fast food lovers since their respective childhoods: John's go-to was McDonald's; Dimbleby was a Burger King fan.
As a child, Vincent would hit the floor in full-blown exultation when his parents said they were heading to McD's. Dimbleby recalled reciting a marketing campaign slogan during his younger years' BK orders ("they are flaming tasty') to get a free Whopper.
Simply, they shared a common view of fast food and what it had become: "Magic — before we found out it was killing us."
"We asked ourselves that there must be something better, surely that has to be another way," said Dimbleby during his opening keynote at the three-day Fast Casual Executive Summit that kicked off Sunday evening at the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington. The summit, run by Fast Casual's parent company, Networld Media Group, draws restaurant executives interested in learning and networking via interactive sessions.
Making fast food a good life
In 2002, Dimbleby called Vincent and told him he was going to do it — redefine and re-create fast food as fast food with a purpose. And Vincent didn't pause in his response, telling Dimbleby he was on board.
The goal, said Dimbleby, was to "create something very different," and both envisioned the new fast food as a good life — a life in which one feels good without feeling guilty. It was about changing fast food for the future, said Dimbleby, "giving children better fast food than we had as children."
The business partners, both with consulting backgrounds in other industries, put their planning skills to work, and as it turns out, way too much planning into play. That was the first big lesson learned and one of many in the quest to innovate the fast food industry.
The extended planning even included sketching out a restaurant floor plan and design on a U.K. car park in chalk and using cardboard boxes for counter locations. They spent three days in the car park in that undertaking.
The lessons continued when the first location, on Carnaby Street in the U.K., opened in 2004.
The co-founders learned how one technical operational glitch could push back a location launch by weeks when a ventilation system failed. During those weeks the hired restaurant team spent their days training.
It was, simply, "insanity" in terms of redundancy planning, shared Dimbleby.
After one day of serving customers, the co-founders decided to slash the menu in half and realized they needed to educate customers about their food to eliminate the looks of 'fear' when first-time customers lined up at the counter.
"We called it the 'Leon stare' as new customers found themselves in a panic of what to order," he shared to audience laughter.
"We had put so many barriers up at first between us and the customer on what we were doing," he added.
Another misstep was initially not using photos of menu items but going with a handwritten chalk-created menu board. Once they reversed that poor decision order sales jumped 25 percent, he said.
One year after its first location opened Leon was awarded "Best New Restaurant in the UK" by the Observer Food Monthly and opened its second restaurant, in Ludgate in the U.K. that year as well. In 2006 it officially became a ‘chain' brand. By 2008, Leon was publishing its own cookbooks and launched brand collectibles in 2011.
The brand now operates 52 sites across the U.K., three in Holland, and this year opened a Leon in Washington, D.C., the first step toward a goal of 10 to 15 locations in the area as well as locations in Denver and west coast. It's also planning a franchise strategy for Europe.
In those early days the brand was "building a car while at the same time driving it 100 miles per hours on the track," Dimbleby said.
But along the way the co-founders learned from each lesson and the vision and philosophy became more defined: fast food not fast casual, fast food fun factor, fast food pricing, product brand, proper food, a way of living.
"We are a way of living," said Dimbleby.
In choosing its brand name, Leon, the co-founders didn't go venture from home. The brand is named after Vincent's father and reflects the brand's mentoring focus and vision.
If they had an opportunity to redo the business strategy, Dimbleby said they would likely not be as planning focused or as cautious.
He also warned off summit attendees from focusing too much on business books for guidance and advice.
"There are a million ways to success," he said, adding, that, yes, luck plays a part.
Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.www