Henry Dimbleby: nine restaurants and growing

The co-founder of Leon, the high-quality fast food chain, talks to Simon Evans about his philosophy of the guilt-free good life
Click to follow
The Independent Online

'I'm not sure what to do," says Henry Dimbleby, one of the founders of the Leon fast food chain, as we sit outside the group's trendy south London Bankside restaurant. "Those clouds look dark, so perhaps I should take the chairs and tables back in."

As the heavens open, Dimbleby and a few of his staff hurriedly bring the furniture inside. The lot of a restaurateur isn't as glamorous as one might first think. Not that Dimbleby and his co-founder, John Vincent, were looking for glamour when they first thought of Leon.

"John and I were working for Bain management consultants and had a client in Newbury, so we were always haring down the motorway grabbing food on the go," he says. "But typically we were faced with chiller cabinets or a greasy fry-up. In 2002, I rang John and told him I wanted to run a high-quality fast food chain and we both quit our jobs."

Dimbleby admits he has not yet scaled the heights of his previous salary, but seven years and nine restaurants later he looks very much at home running Leon.

"We created Leon with the idea of the good life in mind," says Dimbleby. "If you think about things that are generally good for you, you think about going to the gym, running in the rain, eating mung bean salads, things that require some kind of sacrifice. In contrast, if you think about things that are lovely, you think about expensive watches, foreign holidays, where there is a cost and guilt associated. So you're always in this terrible position – better person or feeling guilt. The idea with Leon is that you should have something nice that also makes you feel good."

Something nice that makes one feel good wasn't uppermost in the pair's minds when they undertook a research project to help devise a business plan for Leon: it was a month's stint working at Burger King.

"I'm a certified Whopper-maker," laughs Dimbleby. "But, seriously, if you look at traditional fast food, there are lots of things they do well. Their health and safety standards are incredibly high. And they largely produce food quickly to a consistent standard. We wanted to learn from them because one of the key ingredients for Leon was always scaleability."

They kicked off their first restaurant in London's Carnaby Street, where the pair worked in the kitchens. "It was important we made sure what was going out the door was good early on," says Dimbleby, a former commis chef.

Food that requires "real cheffing" is now made in a kitchen on the outskirts of London, such as the meatballs that go into the group's biggest-selling dish, he says. However, items such as wraps and salads are still made on the premises.

"Every Monday, I visit Benny the chef and we go through all the dishes, how we can improve them and whether we can introduce new items," says Dimbleby. "We would never put scrambled egg on a menu – too many variables, too hard to make. The whole menu is made up of things we think we can consistently deliver."

With a large part of their own money used to back the venture, Dimbleby and Vincent also called upon some august names to help fund Leon including the BBC broadcaster David Dimbleby, Henry's father and Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz, the famed City financiers. Since then, others who have come on board include BBC sports presenter Gabby Logan, comedian Alexander Armstrong, and Ian Neill, the chairman of Wagamama. The former BBC chairman, Gavyn Da vies, invested a large amount last year, while Nick Evans, founder of the Evans cycling chain, is Leon's chairman.

So far they seem to have backed a winner. Leon is now comfortably profitable – and this year is on target to reach nearly £10m in sales.

Unlike many fast food rivals, profitability hasn't been dented by rising food costs. "If you just sell burgers, and the price of meat goes up, you can't do much about it. We have the advantage of having lots of dishes. If butternut squash is getting expensive, we may use sweet potato instead."

Nevertheless, Leon is priced a point higher than many of the fast food firms against which it is competing. "We set ourselves a target on similar dishes of around 15 per cent more than competitors not using premium ingredients," he says. "We use Freedom Food chickens and our equivalent of the Happy Meal is 40p more expensive."

The move this year to the Bluewater shopping centre in Essex was a milestone for Leon, branching out beyond its traditional London base. "There is incredible snobbery around food where it's assumed that people who didn't go to university are happy eating rubbish," says Dimbleby of the move. "People really care about food. Jamie Oliver's done amazing work on this. We are very busy in Bluewater and they totally get it."

Engaging with customers is something Dimbleby and Vincent clearly relish. "It's important to speak with your customers," says Dimbleby. Customer feedback is a way Leon's management also incentivises its staff. "Every week we ask customers if they were greeted with a smile, if the food was good and would they come again? If the answers are good, everyone in the team gets an extra pound each hour they work for that week." Staff turnover rates at Leon are around a third the industry average.

Dimbleby and his team are currently in the throes of putting a shortlist of sites together for Leon's tenth restaurant, likely to be in London, and the group recently received financing from its lender, Royal Bank of Scotland, to fund the new site.

"There are some great property opportunities out there and there will be for until the end of next year, I think," says Dimbleby. "The recession is a very binary thing. For those that survive, there are plenty of opportunities. We plan to use the recession to grow and spread the Leon word."