KING OF LEON: John Upton on fast food, fluid kitchens and fighting inflation

John Upton, managing director

With a focus on seasonal, fresh and natural ingredients, highly successful foodservice chain Leon Restaurants has emphatically proved that fast food doesn’t have to be bad food. But what sort of kitchen model is harnessed behind the scenes to power this rapidly-growing operation? FEJ caught up with managing director John Upton, who joined the company last year from McDonald’s UK, to find out. 

Leon recently opened its 42nd store. What are your ambitions in terms of restaurant growth?

We think we will be well over 60 by the end of next year and over 100 within three years from now, so we have got a very aggressive and assertive and positive growth plan, and we are being supported by our customers, our teams and our people wanting to see more Leon restaurants around the country, and indeed overseas. We are responding to that demand. We’re in Brighton, we’re in Birmingham, we are in Oxford, we will be opening up in Manchester we think next year and then further afield again; we are looking at sites all over the UK.

There is a lot of discussion in the industry, particularly in London, about soaring property costs and business rates increases. Are these things driving you outside of the capital?

Of itself it’s not driving us outside of London, we see London still as very much a growth market. The rates increases are really bad for a small, growing business. They are significant and they are adding hundreds of thousands of pounds to our cost base. And along with the euro exchange rate versus the pound post-Brexit, we as a small business are facing massive and significant inflationary costs. But London remains a target market for us and we hope that the rental market calms down because rents are still massive and it costs a lot of money per year to get sites. You look at things like rental reviews and they have to change if we are going to continue to have an entrepreneurial industry where businesses can thrive and continue to employ great people, whether they’re from the UK or overseas.

Leon wall

Do you feel that the Leon of today is dramatically different to the one that launched 12 years ago?

It is difficult for me personally to say because I wasn’t around back in the day, but I think if you look at the business plan that [co-founders] John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby wrote when they were setting up the business, the principles that drove Leon back in 2004 are as entirely relevant now as they were then. Our decision-making is still driven by the original values. We have three very simple values, which are ‘be kind, be a leader, and eat and live well’. And the mantra behind the business is why does fast food have to make you fat and make you feel bad? We really do offer fast food, but we do it brilliantly. We will serve more than seven million customers this year, who will enjoy eating and living well because they are coming to Leon.

Talk us through the importance of the back-of-house function to the success of the business…

To be honest it is the engine room — it is what ensures that the magic is able to happen on the front counter. We have got some great partners that support us in the kitchen. One that I would pick out is Rational, they are great partner for us. They have got a fabulous product — their ovens are very simple to use, they produce great-tasting food and they are easy for our teams to use, so we are using innovation like that to drive the food side. We continue to refine the ergonomics to make it easier for our people to do their jobs. It can be tough working in a kitchen so the more that we can do to make it easier for our people the better.

The kitchen is our engine room. It’s what ensures the magic happens on the front counter”

We have to find new ways that allow for a more ergonomic environment and, in turn, reduce the number of steps that they have to take. We work with our director of wellbeing, Julian Hitch, who is a Wing Tsun eastern martial arts expert, and he very much brings some of the principles of martial arts around going in a straight line, ease of movement and fluidity of movement. There is a range of things that we are doing to make it easier for our people — how we design layout and how we use bits of kit makes a big difference to us.

As well as being healthy, your business is all about speed. What impact does that have on the way you design kitchens?

We are a fast food business and customers are increasingly impatient. I know that when I was a kid and wanted to watch a video I had to go to Blockbuster and hope the video was in. Now my children get fed up after a few seconds if Netflix doesn’t download quickly enough! That is very much an analogy for our business — people are used to having things on demand more than ever, so our speed is critical. We have an engine that is able to serve 500 transactions an hour in our busiest sites, so we know we are able to deal with high volumes and high peaks. And we also know that while we talk about a ‘lunch hour’ the average customer has more like 20 minutes. Every minute you eat into that makes a difference!

Leon counter

What principles are key to the smooth operation of the kitchen?

We have a fairly straightforward, ergonomic layout in terms of the Rational ovens at the back of the kitchen and areas for preparation. It is all prepared in an ergonomic straight line, placed into the holding area and then served. In terms of principles we are using a very linear ‘as-few-steps-as-possible’ approach to the kitchen and therefore we’re able to sell and prepare a lot of tasty food really quickly. We use our Rational ovens to help bake our fries because we don’t fry anything. Leon turned established fast food on its head by doing that and we’ve got some exciting new food coming out next year which will do that again.

When I was a kid and wanted to watch a video I had to go to Blockbuster and hope the video was in. Now my children get fed up after a few seconds if Netflix doesn’t download quickly enough. That is very much an analogy for
our business!”

Do you look replicate the same kitchen model across stores?

Yes, we do, but we have quite a few sites in London in particular where the physical lay-out of the building doesn’t allow exact uniformity, but the principles are the same. We have an in-house team that will look at the kitchen — operations are involved, design is involved, the property director is involved, equipment buyers are involved. It is a team effort and together everyone will look at the layout of the building and establish where all the pieces of the jigsaw need to go. We are fairly self-sufficient in that regard now.

Equipment suppliers have been been forced to raise prices. Are you preparing for new kitchens to become more expensive?

We are seeing inflation right across the board. And frankly we are just working really hard with suppliers to reduce that as far as possible — it is not just bits of kit, it is obviously labour because labour is part of building a kitchen as well. So you’ve got a range of inflationary pressures there of labour, hardware, food — raw ingredients — rent, the Living Wage. So it is not just one factor. We are facing a lot of cost and we are having to work smartly to deal with it. The fact that we are growing is obviously helpful because we can talk about more volume.

Leon interior

How much time do you spend looking at kitchen innovation?

We have great partners in Vision Commercial Kitchens and Advance Group and they often offer insight to specific bits of kits out there. There is also many of us here that have come from a variety of backgrounds and have different expertise and experience, so that leads to a range of inputs as well.

Defending market share

Leon is credited with creating the fast-healthy niche and has therefore seen numerous competitors emerge over the years as the natural fast food sector has expanded. So just how difficult is it for the company to defend its market position against this threat?

“I think what we have to do is to continue to innovate in terms of things like menu changes,” responds managing director John Upton. “We have got some great food innovation coming, we have got some great beverage innovation on the way and I think we have to stay ahead by being first to market with loads and loads of exciting new foods and new drinks. And also the pace at which we can scale will help. We have Leon food delivery now, too, through great partners like Deliveroo and UberEATS, so we just have to continue to try and serve and reach as many customers as we can,” he adds.

Did you know?

• Leon was founded in 2004 with an aim to make it possible for everyone to eat good food. Its menu is inspired by Mediterranean and British ingredients, and it was the first high street chain to display nutritional symbols on menus.

• Three years ago, Leon co-founders John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby co-authored the government-backed ‘School Food Plan’, which has transformed what children eat in schools and how they learn about food.

• The most recently-available public accounts for Leon are for the 12 months to the end of 2015. It made sales of £37m (up from £25m the year before) from 26 self-owned sites and seven franchise sites.

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