Coming to America: What One UK Fast-Food Restaurant Is Learning About International Expansion

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LONDON—John Vincent loves fast food. The founder and CEO of Leon, a U.K.-based restaurant chain, said he grew up savoring his visits to Burger King and McDonald’s. And in 2004, after seven years at management consultancy Bain & Co., Vincent set out to open his own restaurant with a singular lofty goal: to make the food that would exist if fast food existed in heaven.

For Leon, that’s meant offering a sustainable, healthy fast-food option that doesn’t have to mean salads. Instead, it means hot rice boxes with protein and kale slaw, plant-based burgers and gluten-free chicken nuggets, items that seem to belong on a fast-food menu but with ingredients that are better for you. In a conversation at Leon’s London headquarters, Vincent told Adweek, “There’s nothing in the word fast and there’s nothing in the word food that means it has to be bad food.”

That, coupled with a belief that there was a gap in the market when it came to providing all-natural, sustainably made fast food that was healthy, drove Leon’s creation. But Vincent was firm that the concept had to be fast food, not fast casual. (Think McDonald’s, not Chipotle.) What he loves about fast food is the “fun factor” that comes along with each individual dish—customers aren’t choosing the ingredients for the dishes themselves; instead, they’re dining on predesigned classics.

“For us, there was something magical about fast food that we didn’t want to throw away in moving to fast casual,” he said.

Since its London debut in 2004, Leon has expanded throughout England and Europe, with franchises opening in Norway, the Netherlands and Ireland—there are 73 Leon locations worldwide, with 60 in the U.K, 10 in the rest of Europe and three in the U.S. In recent years, Leon has seen continuous growth, with sales numbers surpassing 50 million pounds ($65.7 million) for the first time in 2016.

Right now, Vincent said, expansion in the United States is a top priority, so much so that the company is handling it at the corporate level, rather than allowing franchisees to open outposts as Leon has with previous international expansion efforts. Vincent said the brand wanted to take a more hands-on approach in the U.S., where changes can be made instantly due to a closer proximity to the home office.

“Going into America, we understand that we need to learn, to be more nimble and agile,” he said. “If it was a franchise, we would be divorced from it.”

Leon’s offerings range from salads to rice boxes and chicken nuggets.

American arrival

Leon arrived stateside in September 2018 when it opened its first U.S. location in Washington, D.C. It chose the nation’s capital because of its history as the birthplace of other eco-minded restaurant chains like Sweetgreen and Cava, giving “precedent for it being a place where you could export the brand to other cities,” Vincent said.

D.C. isn’t as sprawling as New York, where making a splash as a newcomer would be difficult. Additionally, D.C. is a city with a lot of pedestrians and public transportation users, unlike Los Angeles. There would be customers there seeking healthy, fast options, Vincent reasoned, as well as the potential to foster a sense of community.

“I’m really intrigued by cities the size of D.C., where you can become part of that city,” Vincent said. “If you go to New York, it’s not easy to be a part of the fabric of New York. I’m hoping that if we if we can look at places like Seattle, Denver, Austin, Portland, San Diego, places where we can literally be a part of the community, that is what I’m interested in.”

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