Leon: John Vincent’s Take on Fast Food

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Founder and CEO John Vincent in front of the D.C. location of Leon. Photo by Frank Garcia. Courtesy Leon.

Growing up in the 1970s, John Vincent loved visiting McDonald’s so much he would lie on his back and kick his arms and legs in the air for sheer joy. Fast forward 40 years. Vincent is now fully aware of the dangers of too much McDonald’s. As CEO of British restaurant company Leon, he is setting out to recreate that same pleasure he got as a kid from fast food — this time with a healthy twist.

After 14 years in the U.K., Vincent is bringing Leon Foods to the U.S. Its first location will be at L Street and Connecticut Avenue here in D.C.

Vincent wanted to recreate the addictive factor of fast food with craveable flavors like fresh herbs, olive oil and spices rather than the dangerous additives in most fast food.

“I want people to really look forward to eating,” he said. “I want their body to say ‘feed me this stuff.’”

Vincent took simple ideas like McDonald’s iconic Filet-O-Fish sandwich, worked on getting rid of sugars and chemicals and figured out how to make it sustainable. Other popular items on Leon’s menu include meatless meatballs, a halloumi wrap and chicken satay. Foods at his restaurants generally keep to a Mediterranean diet, with a healthy amount of good fats.

Dealing with healthier food means four deliveries per week to the restaurant. All salads are made one to four hours before being consumed, unlike supermarket salads, which are often on the shelf for two to three days, Vincent explained.

“We are a fresh kitchen, not a grab-and-go concept,” he added. “We’re literally a restaurant turned into a fast-food restaurant.”

Vincent chose D.C. to set up his first American shop because he found it to be the U.S. city most like London.

“It’s full of what we tend to call cultural creatives,” he said. “There are people who have really interesting worldviews, who are open-minded and ready to try new things.”

Vincent also said the way the city is set up is much like London, relatively pedestrianized with people who ride the subway and walk around at lunchtime. Being from the U.K., Vincent sees the U.S. as not one market but many. He ultimately hopes to expand to the West Coast, and later to places like Austin, Denver and Florida — “wherever the sun is shining and people are smiling,” he added.

Of course, with the influx of fast-casual, “healthy” eateries, it’s hard not to think about how Leon will differentiate themselves from the others. Vincent calls Leon “chef-driven fast food.” His restaurants are truly what people think of when they think fast food: multiple lines, speed and, according to Vincent, an entertaining time.

He believes in making fast food great again (not to make any political parallels, as he says). Vincent loves to be playful with his brand, commenting that around the holidays, Leon makes note that its name spelled backwards is “Noel.”

Speaking of names, Leon was Vincent’s late father’s name. “He was a really lovely, gentle and positive person,” Vincent said. “He loved sailing and horse racing. He always told me to say what you’re doing to do and to tell the truth. He really enjoyed life.”

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