Leon has used the challenges of the pandemic as an opportunity to adapt and improve how it develops its people, said UK managing director Shereen Ritchie.

“We didn’t want to stop investing in our people because of the crisis – that wasn’t a good idea. It was something positive we could focus on,” she told attendees to MCA’s Food to Go Conference last week.

Speaking about how the business has sought to nurture its strong people culture and support its employees during the past 12 months, Ritchie said it instigated a host of initiatives in order to ensure that its team felt engaged and motivated. These have included weekly check-ins, group zoom calls, online quizzes, newsletters, seminars, and sending its family members “boxes of love” and cards.

Ritchie said that communication has been key to keeping the culture going. “We have a very clear structure to ensure everyone gets checked in on and everyone is involved in everything that we are doing. Communication is key to this and making sure that everyone has autonomy and knows what their role is in the wider plan,” she said.

The business has been very conscious of the effects of lockdown and prolonged isolation, with the current lockdown, “by far the hardest”. It has promoted mental health first aid, and in particular its employee assistance programmes, and has an open-door policy in the business when it comes to asking for help and support.

“There are some people that have been on furlough for a year. Social and mental changes will be embedded after that length of time so reengaging someone back to work takes far more than some training online and telling them some new processes – it is understanding what a huge mental shift this is and how each individual needs to be supported, because it is going to be different for every person and it’s going to take time to adjust.”

Ritchie said the most successful way to engage your team is to ask them what they need and mostly importantly listen to what they say.

Leon’s journey through the pandemic

Ritchie explained that the business chose not to close all of its restaurant when the crisis first hit as it had “an unexplainable need to do what it could to get food to those that needed it”. “We made sure every Leon family member was empowered to do what was right,” she added.

The business turned some of its restaurants into shops in order that people could access food and essential supplies if they needed them, it served 10s of 1,000s of meals to the NHS with Feed NHS, it started an e-commerce business called Feed Britain, it launched click and collect, opened two dark kitchens and two virtual brands, started to roll out kiosks in its restaurants and launched some products on Amazon.

“It was a pretty busy time for us and it reinforced what we already knew – that being agile and nimble is key to our success,” she said.

Looking forward she predicts that things like subscription services – both instore and at home will become a huge revenue stream for brands. She believes there has been a fundamental shift in how people want to receive their food, and that there will always be a place for a restaurant at home box now.

Ritchie said that while Leon had seen massive growth in delivery – “and this will always play a big part in our future” – she thinks it plays a bigger part now than it will do once lockdown is eased. “The big challenge is making it commercially viable and still great value for the customer,” she said.

And while she foresees Leon’s property strategy changing, as will be the case for many operators, she said it doesn’t mean that Leon won’t ever open in a city or a train station again, but the option of a dark kitchen, or of sub-letting some space from another brand could well be something more operators do more of in the future. “Regionally, places that we may not have gone before we will definitely look at,” she added.

To view the full interview with Shereen Ritchie, or to watch any of the sessions you missed, click here.