“What would fast food taste like in heaven?”
Hugo Engel tells me Leon, a fast-food restaurant chain in the United Kingdom, began with this question. Engel, a digital executive at the company, posits that this food ought to taste good, be healthy, and be kind to the planet. Heaven’s food is not simply pleasurable but nourishing.
There is nothing heavenly about the situation restaurant and food suppliers are in around the world as they weather the unpredictable storm of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, restaurants reported an enormous decline; first by 52% in attendees, and then down an extraordinary 82%.
Two truths exist here: People need to eat and restaurants have to find a way to survive. Also, what happens to the food suppliers servicing the restaurant industry? The answer at the center is Feed Britain: a boxed food delivery service that keeps the restaurant supply industry alive, while also getting food to customers. Leon got Feed Britain up and running online in two weeks.
Engel gestures to a new normal in the restaurant industry. From his home in the U.K., Engel discusses Leon’s support of the NHS, the situation restaurant food suppliers are facing, and the benefits of adopting new technologies in the food and hospitality industries. “I would encourage operators to think outside the traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant model,” Engel says. “Start experimenting with either the direct-to-consumer sites or implementing some different means for people to order from their restaurants.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
For anybody who's outside of the United Kingdom, can you tell me a bit about Leon as a company?
Leon was founded by John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby 16 years ago to answer the question, “what would fast food be like in heaven?” It would do you good, be healthy and it would be kind to the planet.
And since then, according to these principles, it has grown to become a large, healthy, fast-food chain with over 70 restaurants and over a thousand team members. Most of our restaurants are in the U.K., but we also have some restaurants in mainland Europe and also some in the U.S. as well.
I want to start with Boris Johnson's recent address to the country. You may not have that answer right away, but how is Leon responding to the slow opening up of the country?
At the moment, we have very little details of the plan. Until we find out the details, it's quite hard for us to strategize our response. What we do know: Restaurants aren't going to be allowed to re-open for dine-in customers until July at the very earliest.
But I think that reemphasizes the need for us to, first, look outside of restaurants and look at these new ventures that we've started since the crisis and, second, how we can change the way we operate restaurants. For example, it is within the regulations for customers to order for takeout. We launched our first digital-only restaurant in Canary Wharf where customers order on their phone, using our ordering platform. This allows them to just walk into the restaurant when the order is ready and pick it up without making any contact.
At what point did the brand decide that it was going to switch its restaurants to this meal delivery service that would become Feed Britain?
We did a few separate things at the beginning of the crisis. Before lockdown in late March, we started to stock groceries in our restaurants. We converted our restaurants into shops. And then at the same time we rolled out our digital ordering platform to allow customers to make purchases online and collect them at our restaurants.
We wanted to do something bigger than that. We saw this lockdown completely shutting down the food service industry. Before COVID, about 35% of the food that we eat is prepared outside of our homes, such as restaurants and cafes. The supermarkets weren't able to keep up with demand and, in some cases, the shelves were empty. At the same time, the revenues of food service suppliers were drying up. These suppliers told us they were having to lay off workers in some cases, and some were facing the real prospect of their businesses shutting down, businesses that have been going for decades.
We wanted to help the people who were struggling to access food because of [the pandemic]. We also wanted to help the food suppliers who had no means to sell their food anymore.
We set up the Feed Britain ecommerce site as a way for the food suppliers to directly reach those customers. The profits from those sales were used to support the NHS campaign.
Feed Britain was first available to those in the London area. Why did Leon pick this location?
The reason why we chose to focus on London is partly because of our presence as a brand and where a lot of our restaurants are. It was also partly as a result of one of the biggest initial challenges we faced launching it, which was in logistics and delivery. We had no prior experience in the logistics of home delivery and that whole part of the value chain. The obvious option was grocery fulfillment providers but they were completely overcapacity. Customers couldn't find an online supermarket delivery slot within weeks, which was part of the reason why we set up Feed Britain.
On the other hand, there are generic carriers, which would require a lot of work on our side to provide appropriate packaging to keep food chilled and safe for delivery. For a while, we were stuck as to what we should do. Then we went back to our first principles of supporting food service suppliers.
While online supermarkets were struggling to keep up with deliveries, food service suppliers were having to lay off their van drivers. They are losing their livelihoods. It was another market inefficiency we wanted to help solve. We went to a supplier called Premier Fruits, which operates a big fruit and veg wholesaler in London in the New Covent Garden market. They offered to partner with us. It was a challenge for them to adapt to home delivery, but it enabled them to keep a lot of drivers busy and enabled us to find the capacity we needed to deliver the boxes to people's homes.
What are some of the discoveries the brand has made in the supply and working with other partners?
There is a big difference between logistics for restaurants and for the on-trade channel versus home delivery. In terms of the delivery itself, there's routing optimization involved and that's something that we're still working on. Now, with Premier Fruits, we’re trying to make those delivery journeys as efficient as possible using routing optimization, which they never had to do when it came to restaurants because they were just doing fewer drops per day.
From a customer perspective, customers rightly expect more than restaurants do in terms of the exact time that their box is going to be delivered. We have to come out of this crisis and look to the future, and we want to start to be able to give customers a lot more ability to pick the slots to be delivered and to expect that too. That requires a logistics set up, which just doesn't need to exist when you're delivering only to restaurants.
This initiative launched on April 7. Can you tell me a little bit about the demand or just what you've seen in terms of what customers want and if there's been a spike in orders?
We set up in two weeks and then in the next few weeks we sold almost a thousand boxes. We were delighted by the initial demand, and since then it has been steady and great. We've been trying to expand the range. We started it super simple with just four boxes. Now we have 18 different boxes.
We’ve also expanded the delivery area: We started off with our soft launch within Southwest London and then eventually to a larger area of London, and now to a very large area across Southeastern England. With that expansion on product range and the expansion of the delivery radius, we're seeing a further increase in sales.
We have a better idea of what people want and what people want to see more of. We've had really positive feedback, especially for the chef-quality ready meals. And [this is] maybe what makes us different from some of our competitors. Ready meals are another category where you may see lots of unhealthy options, full of lots of nasty additives. I think there's a lot of potential to reinvent ready meals.
I'm interested in how you communicate with each other while growing something that's still pretty new.
I guess we're lucky in that we are already quite tapped into the suppliers because of us running the restaurant business. But we also had lots of suppliers reach out to us when John started to speak about it in the media and before we launched… asking us to stock their produce. It's heartbreaking to hear some of the stories about the suppliers whose businesses are completely dried out.
But then there are also some incredible stories of suppliers who have really taken the initiative themselves to do something to support the other people in their category. There's a guy called Anthony, who is an artisan cheesemaker based in North London, and he's been making British halloumi, according to his grandmother’s centuries-old traditional Cypriot recipe. He's an amazing guy. And he normally sells his goat's milk cheese into restaurants like Ottolenghi, Caravan, and Morito.
But since lockdown was announced, his business has completely changed. He used to supply over 200 restaurants. Like many other small cheesemakers, he based his business on the centuries-old traditions in the cheesemaking business. He's been speaking to all his fellow artisan cheesemakers and asking them if they would also like to have direct access to reach people. Through these contracts, he’s put together two different boxes for Feed Britain: a Best of British Cheese Selection and a box showcasing the Best of British Dairy.
The difficulty of this entire situation is important. But I want to ask you about brand tone. This is a business, you're providing a service, and it is an essential one—getting food to people and NHS workers. I'm wondering how Leon balances the need to get food out, but also attracts new customers. What is the most important thing that leads to a great first impression for new customers?
We’re in this awful crisis but people still want positivity. We've always tried to create spaces of love, hope, and positivity in our restaurants. People have a really positive emotional experience when they eat our food. It's interesting— based on science—when people are in a better mood and less stressed, the food they eat becomes healthier for them because their bodies digest it better. We hope we can deliver boxes, which are full of love and hope.
A lot goes into the design on the website. As an example, when we were putting together the beginnings of brand and style guides, the team looked at wartime posters. They used a lot of pastel colors similarly used on the posters, encouraging people to dig for victory, really trying to boost morale during another time of national crisis. We used the font on our website that they used from the London Underground.
Now I want to get to the NHS a bit. The NHS is the U.K.’s public healthcare system and many of the frontline workers have been impacted by COVID-19, even while they are still responding to the crisis. Can you tell me a little bit about Feed NHS as an initiative and how all these campaigns—Feed Britain and click and collect with the restaurants—how they all work together during the pandemic?
Feed NHS was started as a way to try and deliver free, hot, healthy meals to NHS workers. And we were very lucky that we had the support of public figures like Damian Lewis. Matt Lucas has also been supporting the campaign, and he is a big comedy icon in Britain. He created a song called, “Thank you, Baked Potato,” urging people to stay inside and wash their hands. It went to number one in the UK charts. The money from that also went to support the NHS campaign.
That campaign went on to raise over a million pounds thanks to the generosity of the public. And we're using that money along with other restaurant operators who we've partnered with and to deliver hot, healthy meals once a day to NHS critical care workers. We started in London as we're trying with Feed Britain, but we're now expanding across the country. Leon has served over 85,000 meals to the NHS.
We've converted four or five of our restaurants into entirely just feeding the NHS for free. And how that ties into some of the other things that we're doing: part of why we began Feed Britain is that the profits can be used to support the NHS campaign. We are also giving customers the option to add a donation to the Feed NHS campaign when they're ordering from Feed Britain.
Click and collect, which we're calling smart order, is separate from those two, but still is rooted in the same principle in that we want to enable people to get food in a way that suits them. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to access food, and part of that is allowing customers to order food on their phones.
I think restaurant operators have been quite slow to recognize the need to have their own digital ordering platform in order to not just avoid the hefty commission from third party aggregators but to maintain a direct relationship with their customers and so drive customers' loyalty.
What was in five of our restaurants before the crisis in terms of our mobile ordering channel is now in all our open restaurants. The move towards digital was massively accelerated by the behavioral change that this crisis has precipitated.
Thinking ahead, after the pandemic and social distancing kind of ends, is this something that Leon wants to keep doing?
We definitely want to keep doing this. We think it has huge potential.
We want to carry on this principle of being able to give customers direct access to food from the restaurant supply chain and, therefore, restaurant-quality food. And I think the idea of being able to take the restaurants into people's houses is one which is going to delight customers beyond the crisis.
These are some of our most popular products; chef quality, ready meals, which you can see on our website. We're going to want to continue selling them, as well as an expanded product range of artisan products that people just can't find in supermarkets.
Do you think this model might hurt the restaurant industry or just give customers more options?
Definitely more options [for] customers. We're doing this to support the restaurant industry. And we have to recognize that the restaurant industry doesn't exist in isolation. It is dependent to a large extent on the success of the restaurant industry suppliers This is a symbiotic relationship.
I would encourage operators to think outside the traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant model and start experimenting with either the direct-to-consumer sites or implementing some different means for people to order from their restaurants, which will allow them to continue selling their food.
It's a very humbling time to be working in this industry, but it’s also very exciting. It’s almost like a wildfire has come through the whole ecosystem and razed a lot of it to the ground. But that also gives us the opportunity to sow the seeds and replant it in a better way than it was before; to actually create a better food ecosystem for producers, restaurant operators, and customers. I'm really happy that Leon can be part of the creation of that new ecosystem.
I encourage other businesses who might be tempted to take a more cautious approach of hibernating below ground to come up above the ground and take part in shaping our collective future, hopefully using this as an opportunity to improve upon what came before us.