Health-focused chain Leon has partnered with David Thompson’s Aylmer Aaharn food group to transform its Shaftesbury Avenue site into a Thai fast food restaurant that could become a major growth brand. Restaurant magazine deputy editor Joe Lutrario meets Leon founder John Vincent to discuss the prospects for Tuk Shop.

John Vincent is chomping on a chicken drumstick having just ordered the entire menu for his new Thai restaurant Tuk Shop. “This needs dressing. We’ll get you the dressing,” he says, gesturing at a salad of chicken, shallots, green beans, herbs and roasted rice powder in a US-style folded cardboard takeaway box.

The co-founder and CEO of healthy fast-food chain Leon is clearly relishing the creative freedom and lack of admin that comes with a single site operation. It’s Tuk Shop’s first day of trading and the atmosphere is somewhat chaotic. Initial signs are good though.

There is a steady flow of customers – the majority being tourists that have no idea they’re visiting on day one – and, save an incident with the pad Thai that Vincent chooses not to elaborate on, operations are running smoothly.

Like its far bigger sibling, the menu at Tuk Shop is pictorial and presented on boards which hang above the counter. It is split between Thai restaurant staples such as green chicken curry, pad Thai and mussaman beef curry and less obvious dishes. One of these, a salad of roasted aubergine, steamed egg, fresh herbs, stands out. With its funky, dried shrimp-based dressing it is boldly authentic and would not look that out of place on a street-food stall in Bangkok.

Other dishes aren’t quite as true to the source – the green papaya salad (AKA som tam) is lacking in chilli heat and the mussaman curry lacks the intensity of flavour you’d find in southern Thailand – but, given Tuk Shop’s market positioning, the overall package is surprisingly credible and adventurous.

This West End pop-up is a passion project of sorts – Vincent loves Thai food – but could grow into a significant player if deemed successful. “I had my first Thai meal when I was at university. I remember thinking it was amazing, although it probably wasn’t, because it was tricky to get the ingredients back then,” he says.

Vincent is such a fan of the cuisine that Leon still serves a Thai curry despite it being somewhat at odds with the brand’s broadly Mediterranean theme. “It does not make very good GP either,” he admits. “We will probably take it off now we have Tuk Shop.”

Tucking in

The seed for Tuk Shop was planted when Vincent was approached by Australian entrepreneur Dennis Turner, who runs Thai food group Aylmer Aaharn with Simon Dewhurst and high-profile Thai food expert and chef David Thompson.

Founded in 2010, the company is headquartered in Bangkok and operates a number of restaurants, most notably the five-strong Long Chim. Thompson recently parted ways with Nahm – the Como Hotels-owned restaurant brand with which he made his name – and is rumoured to be eyeing a London opening. He is understood to have had some involvement in Tuk Shop, but the project is being led by Turner.

“Dennis was my business booty call. If I had a spare minute or two I’d give him a ring and we’d talk it over. He’s a can-do guy and smart as hell, we really get on. About six months ago we decided to stop talking and make it happen. And here we are.”

While the project has been in the works for a few years, 95% of the work needed to get Tuk Shop off the the ground has been done in the last few months. Sandwiched between Chinatown and Soho in the ground and basement Leon site that was previously staffed by moonlighting theatre performers, Tuk Shop’s look is inspired by the modern, internationally-minded cafés of Bangkok.

The place is professionally put together, but Vincent hasn’t thrown cash at the project: save a fresh lick of paint, some Thai-style hand stencilling and new branding, the ground floor of the restaurant looks much as it did before. The downstairs feels more themed, with raffia mats, modern furniture and reproductions of cover pages from trendy Bangkok magazine and café brand The Jam Factory and pictures from Thompson’s books.

Tuk Shop has launched with a menu that’s roughly half the size of Leon’s, but the food selection will gradually be extended as the business beds in. Other dishes on the launch menu include pumpkin and turmeric braised rice; and Thai-style fried chicken served with sweet chilli sauce. The price point is comparable to Leon, with most main dishes between £6 and £7.

Drinks include Thai-style iced tea and coffee – which, as Thai tradition dictates, are tooth-numbingly sweet – fresh juices and smoothies, and imported Foco brand soft drinks (varieties include Lychee, Sugar Cane and Tamarind Juice). The Shaftesbury Avenue site is not licensed, but any future Tuk Shops would probably serve alcohol.

A cross continental partnership

Much of the development has been done at Aylmer Aaharn’s Long Chim restaurant in Melbourne. Annita Potter – one of Thompson’s key chefs – has overseen the project, working with Vincent and his food team to adapt dishes for a fast-food environment.

“It’s 50% us and 50% them. I would not want to pretend I’m some sort of Thai-food guru, but we have done a lot in terms of editing and the logistics of making these dishes suitable for our kitchens,” says Vincent, who has a far more active role in menu development at Leon and Tuk Shop than a CEO at at large multi-site business normally would.

Every aspect of the restaurant’s operations have been set up exactly as they would be if there were 100 Tuk Shops. “It’s the exact opposite of Leon in that respect,” says Vincent. “When we launched in Carnaby Street we were boning out our chickens and making our own falafels. Everything was made from scratch on site.”

As such Tuk Shop has a near identical operational model to Leon as it is today, where as much as possible is prepared offsite by third parties. Like the fast food restaurants the business is partly modelled on, Leon does not employ chefs. Neither are its kitchens designed for proper cooking, largely because the business needs to be able to operate within A1 planning legislation constraints.

“We do curries, stews and salads at Leon so these aren’t a problem. It’s the dishes that are usually cooked to order in a wok that have been the biggest challenge,” says Vincent.

“Once we cracked the pad Thai with David I knew Tuk Shop was a goer, although ironically it’s off the menu today because I’m not happy with the sauce.”

So how do you cook a pad Thai without a wok? “That’s a bit of a secret,” says Vincent in a rare moment of guardedness. “The key is cooking the noodles to the right level of tenderness, and when you dress it.”

The design of Tuk Shop’s kitchen is identical to Leon’s and specced with the same equipment. It is the intention that a Leon kitchen team member will be able to work in Tuk Shop’s kitchen with only minimal extra training.

A big advantage of working with Aylmer Aaharn is that Tuk Shop can piggy back on the group’s supply chain. Headquartered in Bangkok, the company makes a range of Thai staples including curry pastes and fish sauce and, with Long Chim restaurants across Asia and Australasia, has an enviable contacts list for the procurement of fresh Thai produce.

“The reason the London Nahm (Thompson’s inaugural London restaurant which opened at The Halkin Hotel in 2001 and held a Michelin star) closed was that David could not get the ingredients,” says Vincent. “Things are much better now. We may look at using British-grown specialist Thai produce, but for the moment we will source through Aylmer Aaharn.”

At the time of launch there is just one vegetarian main course – the pumpkin and turmeric braised rice – which is an area of concern for Vincent as Leon is popular with vegetarians and vegans.

“We’re working on it. In many ways the cuisine does not really lend itself to that demographic because nearly every savoury dish contains either fish sauce or dried shrimp. Once we find a substitute for these two ingredients it will get much easier,” says Vincent, who is waiting for samples of an Aylmer Aaharn-made vegan ‘fish’ sauce made with fermented pineapple that is apparently remarkably like the real thing.

Happily, gluten free – another demographic on which Leon over-indexes – is much easier.

A healthy fast food pioneer

Founded in 2004, Leon was one of the first restaurant brands to make its customer’s wellbeing a priority. The business combines the operational characteristics of a fast-food restaurant with carefully sourced food that’s healthy enough to be eaten every day.

It’s a tricky brief. Expansion was painfully slow at first, but picked up when Vincent – who founded the chain with Henry Dimbleby and chef Allegra McEvedy – took the reins as CEO in 2014. The Active Private Equity-backed group has 53 restaurants including four overseas: three in the Netherlands and one in Norway.

All of Leon’s high-street sites are company owned but its overseas sites and transport hub locations – including those at train stations, airports and Roadchef motorway services – are franchises. Vincent believes that Leon is well-suited to the franchise model and may even seek partners for high-street Leons.

Expansion overseas is likely to outpace the UK with around 20 openings planned for Europe and the Middle East with franchise partner HMSHost International. Just three restaurants are slated for the UK this year, largely because Vincent is waiting for the property market to readjust.

“The plan was to add a dozen UK sites this year. But we need to wait for rents to come down. Landlords need to get real. We’re hoping there will be a readjustment a little later this year.”

Vincent says that significant increases in like-for-like sales have partly insulated Leon from the pain that’s being felt by much of the sector. “We’ve grown a lot. If you compound our same store sales growth over four years we’re on 44%. If we hadn’t had that increase, the rises in wage costs, business rates and input prices would have swallowed 10% of our profits. If this had all happened four years ago we’d be in real trouble.”

Thai expectations

Vincent says Tuk Shop will trade indefinitely if it is well-received. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves because this one might take ages to get right, but if and when we get it right, I would like to do more. In that sense it is not a side project, it’s something we really think could have legs,” says Vincent, who has been quoted elsewhere describing Tuk Shop as a second “engine of growth” for his business.

Vincent is already eyeing another existing Leon for possible conversion to a Tuk Shop. “We have one location that is perhaps a bit too close to other Leons. I do like the idea of having two sites in which to stress test the model and look at how customers respond.”

So who does Vincent see as Tuk Shop’s competitor brands? “When it comes to property and, therefore, customers, I suppose, it will be the likes of Wasabi and Itsu. When landlords are working on developments they earmark space for a coffee shop, a sandwich store, a healthy concept, an Asian concept… I don’t see Thai casual dining chains as our competition because we’re offering a quick, in-and-out experience. It’s fast food. Like Leon we want to position ourselves as an alternative to McDonald’s.”

With 8% to 9% of Leon’s total sales coming through Deliveroo, Vincent sees delivery as a significant opportunity for Tuk Shop. “In many ways Asian is a better fit for delivery than what we offer at Leon, especially in the evenings. We have a good relationship with Deliveroo and we could certainly explore opening in less prime locations or even taking a dark kitchen. I don’t see why a brand like Tuk Shop can’t compete with the likes of Domino’s.”

While Vincent is not the only operator to identify a nascent market for quick and healthy Asian food, for the moment the field is surprisingly clear, with the notable exception of GrabThai, which, as the name suggests, is a Thai grab-and-go format. It serves dishes at a very similar price point to Tuk Shop across its six locations, the majority of which are in the City of London.

But in general grab-and-go and fast food brands have been much slower to move into the Asian space than their casual dining counterparts. Itsu and Wasabi have only recently started to expand beyond their London heartland and only have a handful of challenger brands, including sushi, wrap and noodle purveyor Abokado and Vietnamese chain HOP.

Across the pond it’s a different story with Asian fast food and grab-and-go chains – some healthy, many less so – accounting for a significantly larger chunk of the market. Most of them have used franchising to expand at pace, and Vincent hopes to do the same.

“If it works we’ll look at partnering with people early on both in the UK and abroad.

Tuk Shop feels like something a young, entrepreneurial person would be interested in. One of the big advantages of having Tuk Shop in our portfolio is that it allows us to offer people two distinct brands that share a similar operational model. That will be attractive to franchisees.”