‘Fast food in heaven.’ That was the vision that Henry Dimbleby and co-founder John Vincent brought to life when they opened their first LEON restaurant on Carnaby Street in 2004. But the road to heaven, as it turns out, is riddled with potholes and pitfalls.
Though the fast-food chain now runs 63 stores across the land and is closing in on £100m in sales, its early success was nearly scuppered by the smallest and most vital of things — a chicken wrap. Here, Dimbleby — who left the company in 2017 and has just been appointed by the government to lead a major review of the British food system — tells us how the devil really is in the details.
My biggest mistake revolved around a chicken wrap. Once, in the early days of LEON, I was speaking to a friend of mine called Ed. I was asking him why setting up a business is so hard. It’s all consuming, it saps your energy, and it’ll most likely end in failure. So how does anyone do it?
Ed launched into an analogy. “It’s a bit like trying to make your way your way across a frozen river. Your natural impulse will be to chart the course, take your time, attempt to build bridges to get to the far bank,” he said. “Meanwhile. A bunch of crazy motherfuckers have just dived right in and beaten you to the other side.” My instinct used to be to move slowly. But when it came to our chicken wrap, I realised we’d have to dive right in.
One day, my business partner John Vincent came into the office and said: “Henry, have you tried our chicken wraps recently? They’re not very good.” So we went straight to the nearest LEON and tried them. It was a long way from how I remembered it — and a long way from what we’d dreamed of when we started out three years before. It certainly wasn’t ‘fast food in heaven’.
Through a handful of choices we had completely changed one of our most important menu items. There was less tomato — a cost cutting decision. We’d changed the lettuce to cabbage because it didn’t wilt as much. We’d gotten rid of the pickle. It was death by a thousand cuts. This was our Big Mac — and it just wasn’t great.
John said: “let’s fix it.” He was one of those crazy motherfuckers diving into the frozen river. Within a few weeks of that conversation we had the new, improved recipe in restaurants — back to lettuce, more pickle, more tomato. We gave it a quick blast in the panini press before serving to get it warm without wilting the lettuce. It was so much better. And immediately — surprise surprise — the sales started going up again.
"Just worry about the stuff that is in the front of the customers. Everything else doesn’t matter if you get that wrong..."
It was a huge realisation. Just worry about the stuff that is in front of the customers. Everything else doesn’t matter if you get that wrong. And if you get that right, all the other stuff gets really easy, mainly because revenue goes up. But it’s so easy to lose sight of that. You see it all the time — in LEON’s competitors, in young food start ups. But it’s so hard to keep your eye on the ball. I used to tell our managers to walk outside of the restaurant, take a few steps, turn around and walk back in. How’s the sound, the lighting, the layout, the fridge?
I often used to think: ‘what would my mum say if she was eating this?’ She used to write cookery books and has excellent judgement. It’s a good test. And it’s so important. If that chicken wrap had stayed as it was, perhaps we would have been in trouble. You’ve got to be constantly testing and changing and evolving — constantly checking in on yourself.
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