From day one, back in 2004, when half of the items on its main menu were vegetarian, LEON has championed food that’s healthy for its customers and, more recently, the planet too.
So how is this pioneer of plant-based food responding to a growing customer appetite for less meaty dishes and how does it foresee the food future?
We asked Leon’s Rebecca Di Mambro, Head of Marketing, and Erica Molyneaux, the company’s Head of Food.
Veg heavy menu rooted in company ethos
Rebecca explains: “Eating more plants has always been one of our three sustainability focuses. That’s now matched by our guests’ growing planetary consciousness. And there are lots of our customers who don’t necessarily want to be vegetarian but want to eat more plants because they know it’s good for their health and good for the planet.”
With sales up 15.2% in the last year and more than half of those being from plant-based items, it looks like Leon’s catering for growing customer demand. But is it happening fast enough?
“Our customers are telling us a lot at the moment that they want more plant-based dishes,” says Erica. “Vegan in particular and you can expect to see that reflected in the menu in future.”
Today, the company is launching a brand new dish – Jack Wings. As the name suggests, it’s a pulled jackfruit-based product, baked in the oven with vegan cheesy bechamel sauce covered with a gluten-free crumb. Erica describes it as halfway between a croquette and nugget. If the trial in selected restaurants is anything to go by it’s going to be popular – they sold out way earlier than expected.
“It’s reassuring for carnivores in terms of the textures and we don’t think there’s anything else like it on the market. We want to offer options that are unparalleled and show we are leading a movement.” says Erica.
So how does LEON see its place in terms guiding people to choose more plant-based meals? Is it facilitating a movement or dictating a change in eating habits?
Rebecca explains: “I think we have always felt a responsibility not to mess up the planet – so we feel like it’s our responsibility to make plants an attractive option. But we wouldn’t be preachy or dictatorial about it. We’d say plants are good for you and the planet and here are some dishes we think are great.
“It’s about making vegetarian and vegan dishes as appealing as possible – that’s how we feel we can guide demand and be at the vanguard of a fast food revolution. We do have some influence over what people eat for lunch and what competitors are serving.”
While the main menu is now two thirds vegetarian or vegan, meat, for the time being at least, remains a key part too.
“Our meatballs have been on the menu since day one,” says Rebecca. They remain really popular but while sales have increased across the menu – their growth has been stable. But it’s not possible to say if people are going for more veg options instead of the meatballs.
LEON’s emphasis has always been on the flavours, ingredients and the Mediterranean way of eating, which traditionally uses a lot of veg. But something happened late in 2017 that made the guys at LEON re-think their approach.
“We’ve always had a Turkey Curry and Christmas Wrap on the menu,” says Erica. “Then in 2017 we introduced the Falafel Christmas Wrap. We were absolutely stunned when it outsold the traditional meat one. That was the point as which we knew we had to escalate our vegan innovation.”
That innovation is encapsulated in a new dish that’s fast become a customer favourite, says Erica: “Our focus is to try and balance our Mediterranean roots while transforming traditional fast food. In January we introduced our LOVe Burger. It’s a first for us using veg in a clever way to imitate meat. It’s soya beetroot patty and we have been absolutely blown away by the customer response. It is now one of our top-selling dishes.”
There are two winning ingredients in Leon’s recipe for plant-based power really worth sharing.
- Making veg sound like it tastes good so you as a meat eater you don’t feel like you’re compromising. It’s about describing the flavours in a way that makes them sound like you really want to eat them.
Rebecca: “We force ourselves to be incisive writers and stay away from lazy descriptions, like best-selling or delicious, instead we highlight what makes it delicious.”
- Promoting the plants
“We absolutely can nudge customers through the way we promote dishes with our hero menu boards – promoting one product. Recently we have focused a lot on the vegetarian and vegan dishes.”