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Leon: What If God Made Fast Food?

London-based fast-food company Leon is a prime example of the Founder's Mentality in action.


Leon: What If God Made Fast Food?

One company has set out to answer the question, "What if God made fast food?" By adopting a clear insurgent mission of making fast food that is healthy and delicious, London-based company Leon is a prime example of the Founder's Mentality in action.

Learn more at FoundersMentality.com >

Read the transcript below.

JAMES ALLEN: Welcome to Leon, a fast-food restaurant trying to take on the industry. Leon thinks perceptions of fast food are all wrong. Fast food is seen as greasy and fatty. But Leon wants to prove just how healthy it can be.

So far it's going well. Very well. In our language, we'd say the key to that success is Leon's tremendous commitment to what we call Founder's Mentality. It all begins with a simple question.

JOHN VINCENT: How can we rediscover a love of fast food? How can we not throw that love of fun and flavor that exists in fast food? How can we stop that ill-ease? And so it was really the idea of, what would God do if God did fast food?

ALLEN: It sounds a bit wacky, but that wackiness leads to a clear insurgent mission.

VINCENT: The mission is to make it easier for everyone on a democratic basis to eat and live well.

ALLEN: It's ambitious, maybe impossible. But that mission makes Leon focus on getting a few things brilliantly right—starting, of course, with the food.

KIRSTY SADDLER: We are always going to want to believe that we are in a category of one, and that there is good-for-you food that is healthy, but not always perceived as satiating as the other side of things. Whereas, I think we always want to be in between the two.

ALLEN: It's a simple, but effective, selling point: fast-food staples made healthy.

SADDLER: We do the burgers, we do the wraps. We do fries, or the baked, not fried.

TOM DAVIES: Part of the thing I'm most proud of on the menu is the fast-food classics that we do in our Leon and natural way. We spent months and months trying to find what a Leon chicken burger would be.

ALLEN: As well as taking fast food and making it healthy, Leon's taking gourmet food and making it fast. And as Leon grows, it's always finding new ways to do this. I mean, how many fast-food companies can say they use a famous guest chef to spice up their menu?

SADDLER: If you are truly setting out to democratize quality in a certain sector, I think it's brilliant to take either slightly out-of-reach, or specialist, artists and actually make them either accessible and/or affordable, and that's what we're looking to do with Gizzi.

ALLEN: And that mission drives not just how they prepare the food, but how they source it.

GEMMA KEARNEY: As a buyer, it does put a spin on things. You would generally look at the price first. With me, I'm actually looking at the ingredients that are in the product, and actually starting from removing any additives, anything that we don't want in our products.

ALLEN: With such a clear insurgency, Leon ends up surrounded by like-minded business partners. Meet Stephen, a young entrepreneur who's one of the first to grow quinoa in the UK, and who's motivated by the same desire to make great food convenient.

STEPHEN JONES: Years gone by, obviously, convenience went hand-in-hand with pretty unhealthy food. But now with companies like Leon, they're producing food that's ready to go and also really good for you at the same time.

ALLEN: Leon's got the food right, but for John that's not enough. It's about creating an environment as authentic and unique as the food itself.

VINCENT: We have a rule, which is, we don't open a Leon unless it's good enough to be our only Leon. It certainly needs to be a sense of local humanity. This is not a place where you have to mold your personality to the little cookie-cutter hole that we want to squeeze you into.

RABSON MWALE: I mean, even when you look at the guys on the tables you can see that, even the way that they dress, with the earrings and the tattoos, apart from the T-shirt, everything else is 100% yourself.

NIRVANA: I only got this face tattoo recently, and this is one of the few companies that I know that would be comfortable with it. It allows me to give more commitment because they are more accepting of me.

MATT ALI: It does feel individual in a good way. I do feel like this is our store, and this is what we're going to be in charge of. And we can get that nice, close family feel.

ALLEN: What John calls a local humanity means that each customer feels at home, getting a far more personal experience.

JOEL: When they walk in, it's like we know the customers' names, we can recognize them. Hey John, how you doing? There's that Sam who comes in every Monday for his chicken wrap. So we know that's a Sam chicken wrap. As soon as we see him walk through, we give him the chicken wrap.

ALLEN: Leon doesn't just foster that intimacy; Leon celebrates it. Each restaurant has what's called a Gob book. These books celebrate those moments when employees go that extra mile to serve their customer.

MATT ALI: "Joel made my day with his friendly attitude." Joel comes up a lot. Joel is one of our team members, and he comes up a lot. I've learned so from him about how to deal with people. He's so charming.

ALLEN: That's awesome. Matt, just by going through the book, can't help but appreciate the great work his team does. So John is willing to try anything to improve his employees' well-being. He even talks about training his baristas in martial arts.

VINCENT: We've got a test with six of our baristas we're training to be Kung Fu baristas. We measured them before and after, and the quality of the coffee went up, the speed of the coffee; and the stress levels, as measured by heart rate, went down.

ALLEN: Yeah, we know it's out there. But there's nothing wrong with that. It just shows how great insurgents work tirelessly to empower their front line. And that empowerment leads to something special. Everything becomes targeted around the individual needs of the team. Old hierarchies are upended.

JOHN UPTON: I think a lot of existing hierarchical models are kind of "legacy"—they go right back to the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution. So I think there's a real movement now. Our teams don't want to work in that way; they want to work in a very different way. So it's on us to create an environment for our people to work in a way they can express themselves.

ALLEN: And in this environment, the focus is always on action. Let's just get stuff done.

UPTON: The great thing about Leon is that it's a really strong purpose, and that purpose drives you to make decisions. So we don't have to go and talk to 53 different committees. That clears a lot of debris out of the way, because, is this going to help us achieve our purpose? No? Why do it? If yes, let's explore.

ALLEN: When your Founder's Mentality is that strong, anyone who comes in contact with the company just gets it. And this was so evident when we asked people why they join Leon in the first place.

SADDLER: The reasons, personally, the prospect of working here was so interesting to me is that I believe Leon is a mission-based brand, where there's still a lot of opportunity to make some big decisions, and make the right decisions, as well.

DAVIES: I didn't know the ethos of Leon, but I knew that I loved food. It was clear from looking at the menu that it's a company that is centered around food.

NIRVANA: The first thing that attracted me to Leon was the generally positive vibe. And once I started working here, I realized that you actually have a message for people to be positive.

ALLEN: From our perspective, this is the magic dust: When you have so many people who believe Leon's mission is their personal mission, who knows where it will lead?

SADDLER: We've got to maintain the method and the magic.

[SINGING]: Happy birthday to you.

SADDLER: The method is something that you need, I think, a bit more of as you grow. But it always needs to be balanced with the magic—that is, our people, our culture, our belief in our mission.

NIRVANA: I'm relly happy, you guys! It's true for me, you are my family.

UPTON: If we get the right people in those right roles, we can be 10,000 stores with a family business. It's up to us to make that decision.

ALLEN: So to succeed, Leon's got to get this balance right, bringing method to scale while maintaining the magic. And that magic stems from that one crazy question: What if God made fast food?

Learn more at FoundersMentality.com >

Learn More

Founder's Mentality

Fast-growing companies can become global leaders without losing the values that helped them succeed. Bain’s research explores how large incumbents can also reignite their growth by recapturing their Founder’s Mentality®.


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