Interview: John Vincent, founder of Leon

Kapri Belentepe 24 May 2021
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

John Vincent MBE is the chief executive and co-founder of fast-food chain Leon Restaurants. He developed the 2013 School Food Plan and chairs the Council for Sustainable Business.

We begin our conversation with some light banter on our college rivalry, as he’s a St John’s History alumni and I’m a first year studying History at Trinity. This prompts me to ask Vincent what his most memorable moment during his time at Cambridge was.

‘We just got to the end of a really long week of going Robinson to Trinity Hall to whatever balls [Vincent’s events business] were doing. I woke up – I was so tired because we will go about half an hour sleep at night. And I woke up on a flight case, where I managed to use some black draping cloth as a pillow. It was a beautiful day, and I had my black bomber jacket on. It was my last week at university, and I walked along, having done that event to get my final results, and I had done really well. I went for breakfast in a cafe that was opposite Magdalene by the river. I remember thinking that was actually quite a nice ending, because I just been just been doing these balls all week, I just got a first and I was sitting in this beautiful sunshine’.

After graduating, Vincent went on to work at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in sales and marketing, and then moved to management consultancy firm Bain & Co. four years later. Vincent explains that the reason behind this was that by the time he went to the careers service, the only job whose application form was still in date was P&G’s. ‘I was pretty disorganised with it all […] I knew I wanted to do something commercial, something in business but not banking’.

Vincent reminisces that while he enjoyed the sales training as it was fun, his main excitement came from his events business which was involved with May Balls and corporate events.

‘I just had a real buzz for creating experiences. I think that kind of the energy that comes from events, it was my way of creative expression […] I used to enjoy the branding of it, the idea, the concept behind an event, because all events were different. I think that probably I’m fundamentally a disruptive creator, so that was just one manifestation of that […] I just think a lot of humans do have is very dull […] and Britain can be a very grey country. I think it was my attempt to un-grey Britain’.

Vincent’s love for creating experiences prompts me to ask him what his vision of the perfect Leon experience is.

‘It’s like you die. You go to heaven and you have an art class with Michelangelo. He says, “Do you want to grab some fast food?” And you say, “Oh, I didn’t know that you have fast food up here.” And he says, “No, not like down there. Don’t worry. It’s right in the middle of the high street on the corner. It’s just like McDonald’s, but everything about it is different”’.

‘You’ve got people there smiling because they want to smile. You’ve got cool music, you’ve got sunshine bursting in through the windows, you’ve got a really big welcome, food in 30 seconds. It’s beautifully clean […] There’s a kind of magic in the team as they serve you – the team smiles because they want to smile’.

However, the Leon experience will change in the next ten years due to technology. Leon has chosen to embrace digital technology with its delivery service and digital kiosks. However, Vincent is ‘trying to make sure that humanity is enhanced in that process, not screwed up.’ For example, this means ensuring that as Leon continues to adopt ordering technology, there is a host who can actively engage with customers.

We move onto discussing Vincent’s journey launching Leon. One of the problems Leon faced was that everything was made in their central kitchen in Carnaby Street, and that the whole operation was ‘incredibly labour intensive’ as they were flavouring the chicken and rolling the meatballs by hand.

‘But I would say the single biggest thing was the complexity of the actual kitchen operation upstairs. After the first day, we had to make so many changes. We used to say to the customers, ‘Would you like your wrap in white or brown bread? Would you like it to eat in or take away?’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, we cannot do that. It’s killing us!’ So, at the end of the first day, we were able to go ‘Okay, just do one size of soup. Just do one bread, don’t offer eat in or takeaway!’ The first week was really when we did most of our learning, probably half the learning we’ve ever had to deal with maybe in the last 16 years were made in the first week’.

‘We used to call it the “problem bollard walk”. We used to walk down to the end of Carnaby Street, round the bollards and back. Normally we’d solve the problem by the time we came back’.

Leon learnt many lessons at the beginning of the pandemic too. The first lesson was that they were in simultaneously the best and worst locations. Originally, Vincent thought that central London, train stations and airports were the ‘absolute gold-plated sites’, but as the pandemic has shown, drive throughs and suburban locations are the ones that have been resilient. The second lesson Vincent thinks that he learnt is that it is possible to simplify the operations and management structure within the restaurants further. The third lesson Vincent learnt is ‘how adaptable and resilient that my team is, which is really important. The fact that we stayed open in lockdown one meant that my teams were learning when everyone else was at home…I kind of look at what like the most amazing team building experience ever’.

Leon tackled the challenge posed by COVID-19 by launching FeedNHS on Friday 27th March 2020. FeedNHS’s mission was to deliver free daily hot meals to NHS critical care staff. Leon converted about 10 of its 75 UK takeaway outlets as shops selling both groceries and ready meals. By June 2020, FeedNHS raised £1.4 million and directly delivered or funded 460,000 meals to NHS staff.

Vincent explains that for years, he spoke about Leon being ‘the fourth emergency service’ because Leon is ‘fundamentally there to provide for people’s wellbeing’. Vincent stresses how ‘we need to recognize that the fact that the state isn’t always the most fast-acting or the best at solving problems’.

‘When it came to FeedNHS, I had this feeling that the state is clearly failing. These frontline workers are not getting food, which means that not only are they getting ill, but that affects the ability of care they’re able to give to others. We were the first to give a 50% discount to NHS workers, which was followed the next day by Pret, and the day after that by Itsu. Then, all of the competition started closing down, and we were the only people open. We were finding that the NHS teams were really dependent on us’.

FeedNHS was started when Henry McCrory and Damian Lewis called Vincent and told him ‘Look, we have got a friend at St. Mary’s Hospital who really needs food – they’re struggling.’ Then, Matt Lucas from Little Britain got involved to help brainstorm ideas. Between the four of them, they looked at FeedNHS to raise money, part of which went into Leon providing meals and part of which went towards the rest of the industry as well.

‘We managed to keep feeding ICU teams and Deliveroo arranged to deliver a lot of the meals. Our teams were working nonstop to deliver them. It became a really important part of the phase one of lockdown for these hospitals’.

Before we say goodbye, I ask Vincent what his favourite Leon dish is. Vincent’s all-time favourite is the Leon chicken with aioli, rice and slaw. However, Vincent’s current favourite is the Korean chicken burger because ‘it just tastes nice. I think the flavours are so interesting […] and it’s really good for gut health, because it’s got kimchi’.