Leon Comes to Washington with Hopes for a Green Fast-Food Future

by Aaron Royce

The Farragut North restaurant is the London brand’s first U.S. location.

Leon’s delectable lamb kofte, accompanied by brown rice and its’ signature kale slaw.

Fast food and healthy eating aren’t concepts that usually go together, but Leon is aiming to change that. A favorite in its native UK since 2004, Leon has begun expansion in the US with its first location in D.C., drawing from Mediterranean food culture to bring healthy dishes to District residents.

“Our brand values are to live well, eat well, be kind, and be leaders,” says Julian Hitch, Leon’s Director of Well-Being. “We want to incorporate well-being into daily life, like when we do group breathing or stretching exercises to stay balanced. I look at everyone like athletes; there’s a freedom and responsibility to the job, and like athletes, we want to be empowering and want to make others feel empowered. We call Leon our family, so we look after each other.”

In addition to balance, Leon’s incorporates martial arts within its wellness values. “I teach martial arts called Wing Tsun, which is unusual in business,” Hitch continues. It’s very physical, and requires moving with minimum effort to the maximum effect. It’s all about more engagement through movement. For example, our trainings incorporate mindfulness, and that contributes to a state of enjoyed relaxation despite a restaurant’s busy pace. We develop people to be in the present moment, and we all feel and are connected.”

Leon’s best-selling Moroccan meatballs.

Whether it’s affordability, healthfulness, or speed, Leon’s newest location aims to be consistent with its UK predecessors.

“The US is the home of fast food, so we felt we had a duty to bring Leon here. It contributes positivity and is the right thing to do,” says managing director Glenn Edwards. “We want the restaurant to look and feel the same, have the food taste the same, and have our entrepreneurial spirit be the same. The energy from our team is the most tangible component. We need people with a similar mentality, and are very lucky to have found them in the US. We don’t second-guess what Americans want. We want people to love our brand before further expanding and really value positive feedback. Staff can cook and celebrate and work together, and as we grow more people love our industry and we can expand our skills. There’s a strong family nucleus in our staff that’s extended to our customers.”

The UK similarities to D.C. motivated Leon founders to establish the first US location in the District rather than, say, New York or Los Angeles.

“We like D.C. and wanted to be in a city we enjoy. There are lots of UK parallels, like focuses on social circles and business,” Edwards explains. “People here are receptive, and there’s an excited energy our customers have. People here already know our brand from previous visits to London, and their reactions are very much, ‘You’re finally here! We’ve been waiting for you!’ I joined Leon seven years ago after being a fan of the brand, and as a loyal customer I grew and know our customers are loyal as well. It’s like we’re all in this together!”

Founder John Vincent signs a guest’s copy of Leon’s cookbook at its’ opening party on Thursday, September 13.

That togetherness mentality has grown under founder John Vincent‘s leadership. “I tried to commit to making food that tastes good, does good, is affordable and kind to the planet. The whole idea is if gods made fast food, what would they eat?” Vincent says. “People hate lines, so at our best times we’re getting your food to you in 30 seconds; we want to serve quickly, so you can eat slowly and enjoy the food. We want to focus on positivity, to serve our guests and make food with love. Our locations are powered with wind energy, and all of our cutlery and containers are bio-degradable and compostable. We’re the first restaurant to do that in the UK, and care about being sustainable.”

Food-wise, Vincent’s tastes have come a long way to their progression in Leon’s menu. “I grew up loving McDonald’s and fast food because of their entertainment factors but realized in my early twenties that I wasn’t fundamentally happy,” he says. “At Leon, we limit the amounts of sugar and steer clear of additives and preservatives. We looked at cuisines that tasted good nationally to reinvent fast food with fresh ingredients, and the Mediterranean food principle is known as the most proven diet. We had to reinvent that using a range of flavors from the Mediterranean playground—even some like our Korean mayonnaise, which isn’t Mediterranean but fits in the flavor profile. It’s been successful. We’ve increased the amount of plant-based dishes on the menu, so people who eat gluten-free or dairy-free can enjoy the variety we offer.”

Guests mingle and enjoy Leon bites at the restaurant’s opening party.

But what are the best dishes? The Moroccan Meatballs—Leon’s top-selling signature—are made of grass-fed beef served atop brown rice and accompanied by kale slaw. This dish makes use of strong spices combined with the brand’s garlic aioli and tamarind-infused ketchup. Another standout was the lamb kofte, also served atop rice with a slaw side and topped with chili sauce, garlic aioli, and sweet pickle slices. The lamb is perfectly tender, spiced with cardamom and cumin for a Mediterranean kick. And the waffle fries, dusted in paprika, are a zesty companion to any Leon meal—especially when dipped in the house-made ketchup, Korean mayo or garlic aioli.

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