LEON co-founder: 'How we built an upscale QSR for heaven'

| by S.A. Whitehead
LEON co-founder: 'How we built an upscale QSR for heaven'

As co-owner and CEO of LEON, a 50-unit brand based in London, John Vincent talks and acts like a man who is as far from an evangelist as you can get. Yet, when the fun-loving Brit wanted to start a Mediterranean diet-centered chain, the question he and his business partner asked themselves was simply, "How would God do fast food?"

As it turns out, Vincent came to the conclusion that God would probably do fast food similar to followers of the Taoist philosophy, which promotes living in harmony.

LEON's company mission is focused on doing good through the restaurant and the money it generates but also making sure it generates a healthy profit in order to still do more good for the world.

You can call it circular thinking, but in Vincent's mind, it was the best and only option, which is what he told a rapt audience of restaurant leaders from 17 countries last month during the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in London.

"So what wouldfast food be like in heaven?" he asked the gathering at London's Grange City Hotel.  "Okay, it's on the High Street," he said, referring to a concept Brits use to mean a city's main business street or streets. "And there are counters, and there are people behind them ... but everything else is different. Here, people smile behind the counter because they really want to smile."

Those employees smile, by the way, simply because they're part of a business committed to making the world a better place in every action and every product it delivers. And that feels good and makes customers feel good, which is the idea behind this Taoist-driven business in action and at its core. In essence, doing good by giving others the experience of doing good.

Over the course of an overstuffed hour of rapid-fire, hugely entertaining and frank talk from Vincent, he relayed how the task of creating his take on God's fast food joint involves everything from Australia's pollution-plagued Great Barrier Reef and a beach full of bikini-clad models, to acupuncture, "daddy issues" and a 2,500-year-old Asian philosopher's book.

It was a rare glimpse inside a successful CEO's brain — the audience learned how Vincent and his team created LEON named after the father with whom he shared a sometimes strained relationship. And perhaps most importantly, Vincent relayed why the chain takes such great efforts to achieve its mission and how it delivers big payoffs to the community, its customers and employees.

Six ideas on the stairway to QSR 'heaven' 

Vincent's approach to the QSR is basically a simple business plan based on six powerful ideas, taken in large part from his understanding of the 2,500-year-old teachings of the Eastern philosopher, Lao-tzu, known collectively as Taoism.

Idea No. 1: Do good and make a profit to keep doing good. 

As Vincent put it, LEON exists to make the world a better place. That desire first stirred in him when he returned to the Great Barrier Reef many years after seeing it first in his early twenties, only to find one-third of the world's largest living organism had died due to global warming and oceanic pollution.

"It reminded me of all the things I should have done between (his first trip there in) 1993 and now. It reminded me of how screwed up things are in terms of the environment ... and leadership ... and it made me a little depressed between the shiny hope of '93 and today," he said. "LEON is, and always has been, the attempt to try and carve out a future less controlled by big government ... and big business ... and something we really connect with and we love."

Idea No. 2: Simplify.

John Vincent delivers a keynote at RFIS London.
Photo credit: Ryan 

LEON has a limited menu, although it can be extended to hundreds of individual variations to meet specific needs and preferences for every diner. That not only takes out a nice chunk of cost, energy and waste but requires superpower-like attention to detail and customer preferences as they evolve along with industry trends.

Idea No. 3: Limit what leadership and all staff must do.

This simplifies things when it comes to recruitment, training and performance and not only reduces stress and improves performance, but capitalizes on what each team member most wants to do and does well.

"One thing we did in line with our  ulture is ... we wanted to find that particular thing that drives each individual," he said, referring to one location in an area of a city that revolved around musical performance, study and love. "So we thought, 'Why don't we start it where people are, in that they want to sing. ... Then we made sure everybody in those shops could sing."

Idea No. 4: Show, don't tell.

In Vincent's mind, business works best when employees, customers, leadership and the community actually "experience" the brand through its products, service and overall effect on customers. This, in his mind, is far more effective at helping people understand an idea and far more effective than reading words "about" that idea on a website or restaurant wall. 

As Vincent put it, "I don't believe in talking about philosophy too much. I always believe in experiencing it."

Idea No. 5: Get ego out of everything.

This is especially important, he said, for leaders. The things that make the ego happy in the form of power, money, pleasure or other forms of ego-stroking may feel good but ultimately is destructive to both leader and business. But when the ego is detached and the brand's mission is central, everything tends to align. This concept, said Vincent, means kicking all that military-like vocabulary out of your thinking and your speaking.

"I want to do what I can do and let go of everything else. This is not an army, but a garden. ... That's really important for me in working with franchisees ... in trusting them," he explained. "So do your work and give up your fruits — give up the fruits of the ego."

Idea No. 6:  Keep doing good, even when you do it badly. 

People screw up. Brands screw up. Ideas screw up. In fact, the very act of doing good means sometimes not doing things well. But when the mission stays central to do right by the world, screwing up is all part of the plan, Vincent said. It's an idea that so many business leaders have pointed to again and —  again that failure is life's greatest teachers and one of the few true paths to real growth. 

"Corporate culture creates the ideal of perfectionism," Vincent told the audience finally. "What (Taoism) teaches is that everything is f---ed up and that is perfect." 

Photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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