One of the UK’s most influential restaurant chains is finally gearing up for serious growth and intends to build a healthy presence outside its London heartland within the next few years. Joe Lutrario talks to John Vincent about the story behind Leon

Ten years ago Observer Food Monthly named Leon the Best Newcomer in its annual awards and ran a memorable photo of the team behind it. Founders John Vincent, Henry Dimbleby and Allegra McEvedy are pictured standing behind the counter at their inaugural fast-food restaurant on Soho’s Carnaby Street. Chef McEvedy has her leg up on the counter and is, oddly –considering the restaurant group’s wholesome premise – clenching a victory cigar between her teeth.

Subversion hangs thick in the air. As the line of tills hint, Leon juxtaposes the operational characteristics of a QSR restaurant with healthy, carefully sourced food.

Launched in 2004, it was arguably the first UK restaurant brand to make its customers’ well-being a priority and has been hugely influential, punching well above its weight in PR terms.

Its founders are media savvy and well connected. Dimbleby’s father is the famous journalist David [Dimbleby] and Vincent is married to newscaster and presenter Katie Derham.

The image highlights the changes this company has undergone, with just one of the people photographed still involved in the business on an operational level. McEvedy left in 2009 and Dimbleby stepped down as CEO last year, handing the reins to Vincent.

Vincent looks a bit older, of course, but not that much. Slim and rosycheeked, he’s clearly been following his own advice and eating his greens. He’s in a good mood, too. Leon’s 22-strong London-centric estate has delivered its first serious chunk of profit – almost £2m – and expects to double that next year.

Leon is a brand that could never be accused of a lack of ambition. In fact, the founders are on record saying the long-term goal is to be more valuable than McDonald’s. When quizzed on this, Vincent revises the projection down.

The aim is now to operate an estate that’s a quarter of the size of the international fast-food giant – a little under 10,000 restaurants.

Expansion has been slow, painfully so at times, but with Vincent now at the helm, the rollout is gathering pace.

Twelve restaurants opened or are opening this year and there are plans for a similar number in 2016, bringing Leon close to the 50-restaurant milestone. ;Vincent puts the hold up down to few property missteps – including a location on Kensington’s Brompton Road that was on the wrong side of the street and hidden behind a tree – but mostly because the team is trying something that’s genuinely new.

“We’re not rolling out a restaurant model that has already been proven,” he says. “Pizza restaurants and burger restaurants already exist. There is a blueprint and the supply chain is there already, not to mention a ready-made customer base.”

The food may be fresh and healthy but, on an operational level, Leon is a fast-food brand through and through, using many of the same tactics as McDonald’s and Burger King to drive throughput, speed of service, consistency and, ultimately, profits.

Its kitchens are modelled on those of Burger King. A franchisee advised on the design and Dimbleby spent a month making Whoppers to better understand how a fast-food kitchen operates.

At peak times, the group’s restaurant behind the Tate Modern on Bankside serves almost 1,000 people a day. Dishes are prepared before being ordered and placed on a chute to be picked up by the staff who man the tills. A metal marker shows the kitchen manager when items were prepared with most having comparatively low holding times of between 10 and 20 minutes.

The fast-food model hinges on the centralisation of processes and de-skilling of teams. Vincent says his staff are well trained in the skills they need, but stops short of calling them chefs.

Tomatoes arrive neatly sliced in plastic boxes and the vast majority of the actual cooking takes place in production kitchens that aren’t run by Leon (or as Vincent says “upstream”). “We control the sourcing and preparation and work closely with them to get it right. It’s a painful process at first, but once we get there, we’re there,” he explains.

In content terms, Leon’s menu remains broadly similar to the chalkboard-scrawled original, but the way in which it is presented has changed considerably.

“The idea and mission remain exactly the same, although we are articulating it in a different way.”

Like fast-food restaurants and its competitors in the grab-and-go space – most notably Pret A Manger – Leon uses high-quality photography to entice customers. The brand’s healthy-eating credentials are expressed more subtly now too with the word ‘health’ not used in any marketing and no calorie counts displayed on menus.

“Being told about calories takes away the romance and clashes with the idea that we’re offering the good life. Our food is healthy so most people don’t have to watch what they order here. On the Mediterranean, people are able to eat until they’re full and stay healthy. That’s what we’re going for.”

The food team – run by Vincent and head of food Christopher Ford – looks to the Med’s naturally healthy cuisine for most of its inspiration, but there’s room for a few dishes from further afield.

The menu is constructed around a small selection of hot preparations – including meatballs, lamb kofte & chargrilled chicken thighs and spiced sweet potatoes – which are served in two different sized boxes with salad and grains or rolled up in wraps.

The larger ‘Hot Boxes’ cost between £6 and £7 while wraps and smaller ‘Lunch Boxes’ are mostly under £5 – a crucial value benchmark in the grab-and-go space. Tied for first place on Leon’s best-sellers list are the Chargrilled Chicken & Chorizo Hot Box and the Moroccan Meatballs Hot Box – both come with brown rice and fresh slaw.

There is also a breakfast menu centred around filled muffins, porridge and ‘Breakfast Pots’, small pots containing a poached egg partnered with other breakfast-y ingredients including smoked salmon and home-made baked beans.

Vincent says there are four main criteria any Leon dish needs to tick. “It needs to taste remarkably good. You need to feel good after you eat it. It must be affordable and it has to be as kind as possible to the planet.

“We’re big on lean proteins and we like to pack our food with vegetables and fruits of lots of different colours as well as herbs and spices. The latter two are crucial because they have healthy properties we haven’t even begun to understand and they’re flavourful so allow us to reduce the salt content,” says Vincent, who has expert-level knowledge in nutrition having co-authored the Government’s The School Food Plan with Dimbleby in 2013.

Vincent is looking to drive down his prices to better compete with the likes of McDonald’s. “We want to be affordable but I don’t think we’ll ever mange to go as low as the fast-food giants, largely because of the ingredients we’re using.

“We recognise that different people have differing amounts of money to allocate to food. With that said, I wish people would rethink their spending priorities.

“The cost of not eating well is far greater ;than the cost of eating well.”

With Pret Leon’s biggest rival, it is unsurprising that Vincent believes the current VAT rules are unfair. He is required to add 20 per cent to every hot food sale even if it is to be consumed off premises. “It’s arbitrary. It’s frustrating that sandwich stores don’t pay VAT on their core product. We get stung just because heat is one of our ingredients.”

Leon’s property strategy is broadly similar to the fast-food giants. The group needs prominent sites in busy areas and it’s essential the tills are visible from the street. Leon can also operate in locations with a high proportion of offices but importantly, Vincent doesn’t believe high numbers of office workers are essential, which is good news for the brand’s chances in smaller towns and cities.

Around a third of Leon’s restaurants are run under a franchise agreement with HMSHost. All are in major transport hubs including Heathrow Airport and King’s Cross station.

Leon has two franchised restaurants in East Midlands Airport and the Eurostar Terminal at Folkestone, but apart from those, has so far only opened one company-owned restaurant outside the M25: a flagship site in shopping and leisure complex Bluewater that closed after less than two years’ trading.

“We were offered a lot of money for it at a time when we needed a lot of money for what we wanted to do next,” explains Vincent. “It was trading in line with expectations and making about £250,000 profit a year but Bill’s offered us a significant multiple of that.”

Later this year, Leon will launch a company-owned restaurant in Birmingham and several of the dozen or so restaurants it will open next year are expected to be outside London, most likely in university towns and cities.

Leon’s head office and overall infrastructure has had to grow, which is, Vincent says, the reason the company only came into profit this year. “Our backers are looking at the profitability of each restaurant. That’s very strong with a 45 per cent to 60 per cent return on capital. There’s no doubt the business model works. There’s demand for good fast food. We created this market and I think we continue to own it, which is unusual.”

Vincent believes Leon is responsible for significant shifts in the wider food world. “We’ve encouraged the restaurant sector to go in a certain direction and we’re very proud of that,” he says.

He also lays claim to a number of industry firsts, including gluten-free labelling on menus, the introduction of eclectic global flavours to the high street, and the launch of several new product categories and ingredients to the grab-and-go space, including porridge and superfood salads.

“We’ve inspired our competitors to do hot food. When we put quinoa on the menu everyone thought we were mad, but now everyone is doing it.”

Is he worried that larger groups are moving into Leon’s territory?

“We’re very flattered,” says Vincent, dodging the question. “Meatballs, falafel…it’s all stuff we introduced. It’s a big motivator that people are copying us. It strengthens the spirit.”