The McDonald’s route to The Good Life

Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent endured terrible lunches as City management consultants. Which inspired them to launch Leon, their chain of healthy-eating fast-food restaurants.

The tale behind healthy-eating fast-food chain Leon sounds like a scriptwriter's pitch for a souped-up Noughties version of The Good Life. Co-founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent were once 100-hour-a-week management consultants in the City before they left it all behind to go it alone and pursue healthier lifestyles.

Now Vincent, 36, has just put a geothermal heat pump under his Sussex home, while Dimbleby, 37, is starting a snail farm "with limited success" from his garden in Hackney, London. "You have to clean them and put them in a net with lettuce for a month, which is difficult when someone's just thrown some crack over your wall."

Healthy living hasn't always been a priority for the pair. As busy City executives, a typical lunch involved going to a vending machine and finding "the least horrible thing to eat", says Dimbleby, whose father is broadcaster David Dimbleby. Vincent would regularly dine on bizarre pre-packaged creations, such as a "scotch-egg-type thing with sausage meat, hollowed out and stuffed with coleslaw". It's a diet that will have you falling asleep at your desk, he says not to mention a recipe for a bad sex life.

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But they have one thing to thank their bad lunches for: it's where they got the idea that fast food doesn't have to be bad food. For six months in 2003, the two began devising a menu with chef Allegra McEvedy. They had a vision of a fast-food joint where hot, healthy meals would slide down the chutes such as Moroccan meatballs, rather than cheeseburgers.

Having worked with White & McKay owner Vivien Imerman, Vincent convinced Imerman and his brother-in-law, property magnate Robert Tchenguiz, to invest £650,000. We gave away half the equity, says Vincent "not very good". But it's understandable, says Dimbleby: "we were two guys who'd never run a restaurant looking for money".

Scouting for locations, "it was very tempting to go for a property that was off pitch' (ie, cheaper to rent). But you actually have to get a property that is right in the thick of the competition," says Vincent. "The only way to test this model is to be next to Starbucks, Pret a Manger and McDonald's."

So the first Leon was opened on London's Carnaby Street in July 2004. But early sales figures came in at just £8,000 a week £6,000 short of breaking even. So "we got a pen and ran a line through the menu. There was just too much there" it was confusing customers, says Dimbleby.

The cutbacks worked. Within a year, sales had picked up to £18,000 a week, and they opened a second outlet in Ludgate circus. Soon after, Leon hit the £1m annual turnover mark. Today, it has eight outlets, turning over sales of £8m and in September the pair are opening a branch in Bristol, their first outside London. This is "the first milestone" in delivering 30-35 outlets by 2010.

In an era where people are browbeaten about their lifestyles on every side, the Leon founders prefer to let their actions do the talking. "We've never preached," says Vincent. "You know, you either tell people you're funny, or you make them laugh. We want to act in a way that represents the good life, not tell them about it."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and was a senior writer for MoneyWeek. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example digging into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.