Almost two decades ago, John Vincent MBE recognized a gap in the fast food market. Life in urban centres showed no sign of slowing down, but people began thirsting for healthier ways of living. John understood that convenience and quality need not be mutually exclusive, especially when it came to grabbing a meal on the go. In 2004, he and two business partners founded Leon, a restaurant chain that offered nutritious, delicious, affordable fast food. Environmentally friendly (it has three stars from the Sustainable Restaurant Association), attractively packaged, and bursting with Mediterranean flavours, Leon quickly became an institution in the UK. Since its inception, he and the Leon team have been credited with revolutionizing the fast food industry. With the country fighting an unprecedented battle against Covid-19, John has set up FeedNHS, an initiative to support and feed NHS staff during this time of crisis. John kindly took time out of his extremely busy schedule to chat with us about FeedNHS and Leon. He and his wife, newscaster Katie Derham, along with their two daughters, live in Sussex.
Photo credit: Harry Borden
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the freedom to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
STIL: John, for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis you are giving 100% of Leon’s profits to the NHS. You have also set up, together with Damien Lewis, Helen McCrory and Matt Lucas, FeedNHS, an initiative to deliver around 6000 free meals every day to NHS critical care staff. Can you describe what motivated you to do this?
JV: It was a question of continuing to serve the purpose of what we have always been doing, which is to save humans through food and make it easy for everyone to eat well. So when it became clear that the NHS team had become dependent on us and there weren't really many other stores open, we decided that we would not just continue our 50% discount for the NHS team, we wanted them to be able to get the food for free. Then Damian Lewis called me to say that he had been speaking to his friend at NHS Trusts and asked him “what do you need?”. He replied “what we need is food to eat”. Doctors and nurses are working long hours, they can't take their PPE gear off so they literally needed the food to be brought to them and it had to be proper meals. We decided that we were going to raise some money to make this possible not just for LEON but for and with other people. With Damian Lewis, Helen McCrory and Matt Lucas we launched FeedNHS and now collaborate with other operators like Baxter Storey, Mealforce, Salute the NHS and Feed Our Frontline. To do the right thing and support the care workers, we also created a new business called Feed Britain which is a way of linking up all the people that traditionally supplied produce to restaurants with people in their houses. All profits generated during the crisis will be donated to FeedNHS.
STIL: You recently said “It is wrong to assume that Brexit has impacted the restaurant sector.” What impact do you think Covid-19 will have on the long-term landscape of the restaurant industry?
JV: I think it's going to accelerate technological change, it will accelerate the need for restaurants to think more creatively about the different channels that they will use to address the customer. At LEON, we are going to have to make sure that our restaurants think about grab & go, delivery, click and collect, how we work within a local area in a more flexible way. About the long-term, in humans there are two needs or tendencies both of which are going to be working against each other or in contradictory ways. One is obviously the argument that says we are pack animals, we crave human contact. If you look at history, the Spanish flu or even the plague didn't stop people then returning to interact with each other. The other thing we have in us is obviously fear. So it won't be clear for a couple of years weather people will revert to fearful behaviour of wanting this contract or the other. What I do think we will see, is an acceleration of technological innovation in order to optimise the efficiency of the industry.
STIL: Leon is World Land Trust certified and has helped to save over 300 acres of rainforest so far. Your coffee is fair trade, organic and free of pesticides. Recent documentaries however have shone light on the dark side of ‘fair trade’ coffee plantations. How do you ensure the highest ethical standards are met in your supply chain, and that no child labour is involved?
JV: In part we rely on the stringent certification processes of third-party organisations like the Fair Trade Organisation or the World Fair Trade or the Organic certification process. As you probably know there are companies that present their products as organic even if they didn’t go through the process and cost of accreditation but there is quite a lot of certainty around working with companies that are certified. A lot of our produce is British, we have full visibility for example on chicken farms and we have information on where our produce is grown. We then work with intermediary organisations and certification organisations like the Sustainable Restaurant Association where a lot of information is shared about suppliers. We work with Puro, which are very ethical coffee growers who give us full access to the farms and we send our managers and team members to the coffee farms. Obviously it's not possible to have absolute certainty of anything but I do think that through the third party certification, through the advice and input of people like the Sustainable Restaurant Association and by actually visiting the farms, we do as much as we can to ensure that everything about our supply chain stands up to scrutiny.
STIL: How does the issue of sustainability feature within Leon’s business model, and how do you minimize the environmental impact of the restaurants?
JV: The issue of sustainability is at the heart of what we do. We are very specifically trying to save the human through food so that means that the food must taste good, do you good and it must be kind to the planet. With our value and sustainability director Kirsty, who has a MS in sustainability, we are trying to work out how throughout the value chain we can focus on rewilding. At the start of this year we begun a campaign called Our Wildest Dreams and we are working to make sure that biodiversity flourishes in the supply chain. And we also make sure that all the energy that we buy is renewable. We only by electricity, no gas and the energy we buy is wind or solar powered in both America and here in the UK. We are beginning a big focus on the materials that we use in the restaurant. We only use accredited sustainable wood in the floors and the furniture and we also use recycled bottles plastic bottles for our upholstery. But obviously there is some environmental cost involved in any project so we are trying to work out how we can financially adopt natural capital accounting principles so that in financial terms we can account for the net positive impact we have on the planet.
STIL: As Leon expands globally, how do you choose the countries in which to establish branches, and how do you keep the brand consistent?
JV: We typically select countries to go for based on having great partners. For example in Norway we have a great partner called UMOE, in Dublin we have Chibus, in the Netherlands we have HMS. I also try to find places that I personally would love to go to. I think LEON fits in to places people want to visit, places that inspire my LEON team, where there are people culturally creative and interested in food.
STIL: What would a typical Sunday breakfast in the Vincent/Derham household be?
JV: To be honest, our favourite thing to do on Sunday is to go visit our friends the Coleman’s because they do the most unbelievable brunch. We try to be inspired by them. So we will probably have from the LEON cookbook something like Fluffy Eggs; gluten free pancakes and some sausages from Plaw Hatch Farm and some of their Greek yogurt.
STIL: You have two teenage daughters, how are you managing the Covid-19 lockdown as a family?
JV: We are actually doing ok. Katie and I are working non-stop. Natasha is in Philadelphia with her boyfriend. Eleanor is busy with her on-line school. We have our nephew here who loves being on the trampoline with my sister-in-law. We also have Seve staying with us so I have the benefit of having a live-in executive assistant right now. It is a pretty full on operation down here.
STIL: Can you share with us what you are reading at the moment? Do you have an all-time favourite book?
JV: I am reading a book called Everyday Ayurveda which is by Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya. I bought it when I was in India over a year ago. It’s a really straightforward explanation of how the routines that one can introduce in light of ayurvedic medicine and I would like to recommend it. My favourite book of all time, that’s a great question… What is yours?
A huge thank you to John for taking the time to answer our questions during this crucial time.
Leon has always been ahead of the curve - healthy, unbelievably delicious and affordable. At the heart of this fast food empire is Leon’s unique ethos: to feed people good, nutritious food; to work sustainably to preserve the health of the planet; and, despite phenomenal global growth, to maintain a kind and generous spirit at its core. John’s book Winning Not Fighting is available in our book section.
“Leon is the future,” The Times
To donate to Feed NHS please visit: www.feednhs.com