In 2004, John Vincent, Henry Dimbleby and Allegra McEvedy opened their first Leon restaurant on London’s Carnaby Street. With its bright blue walls, red and yellow signage and sunny images inspired by vintage packaging, it had the appearance of a family-owned cafe from the Mediterranean, and promised ‘naturally fast food’ – a single counter service similar to Burger King or McDonald’s, but serving fresh, healthy, sustainably sourced meals for little more than the price of a Big Mac.
Power smoothies and superfood salads may be commonplace in cafés today but at the time, healthy fast food was still a novel concept, and Leon was an instant success: the Observer named it Best New Restaurant in Great Britain in 2005 and its founders opened a further three sites in the capital within two years. Today, Leon has 21 restaurants, in London, Kent and East Midlands Airport, and a successful series of cookbooks covering everything from veggie dinners to gluten-free baking.
Like any food business, Leon’s success is largely down to the quality of its food, but its unconventional approach to design has also played a key role: like burger chain Byron, founded three years later in 2007, it has no single logo, employs a mix of visual styles, colours and lettering and each of its restaurants is designed to look unique.
“Our initial brief to designers was to create a brand that didn’t look in any way manufactured….We wanted Leon to be instantly recognisable, but totally exuberant and flexible, and every restaurant should look like it’s the only one we have,” says Vincent, a former management consultant.
Open for breakfast lunch and dinner, Leon’s menu is heavily inspired by Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, but it also serves Asian and northern European meals; a selection described by the brand simply as ‘food that tastes good and does you good’.
When devising a name and identity, Vincent says the founders were keen to evoke the colours and sunshine of southern Europe without making explicit reference to the region – the name, for example (also the name of Vincent’s father) was chosen because it sounded Mediterranean but had no obvious meaning. “It would have been very easy to say ‘come and try our healthy, delicious Mediterranean food’, but the design and the branding had to say that implicitly,” Vincent says.
Early Leon signage, packaging and imagery for interiors, including the stickers used to seal its brown cardboard food boxes, were designed by Sandra Curtis (now a partner at Bird) and inspired by fruit packaging. “For us, the idea of a sticker on a piece of fruit, like the Del Monte sticker on an orange perfectly communicated that idea of freshness, flavour, the Mediterranean, the good life, but it also said here is this beautiful thing from nature, brought to you by Leon. We haven’t adulterated it, and we’ve kept things simple, but just added our little signature,” adds Vincent.
Curtis also created a bank of visuals inspired by found ephemera which is still used by the brand on everything from training manuals to burger wrappers today, as well as cookbooks designed by Anita Mangan. Images are a mix of styles but together they helped create a distinct aesthetic with a fresh but familiar feel, without relying on a single set of colours, typefaces or graphic devices.
Another key concern when establishing Leon’s identity, says Vincent, was that the brand should have a personal, crafted feel without looking too retro, twee or handmade.
“It has become a bit of a cliché now, but when we started we said it has to be artisan. We want everything to look like it has come from a thoughtful, skilled designer, who has created it him or herself, and not a team of people on Apple Macs – but people should never look at it and think ‘I could have done that at home in my bedroom’,” he explains.
Striking the perfect balance between fresh and familiar, crafted and precise without any rigid set of identity guidelines, however, is a difficult task and has made working with external designers and agencies particularly challenging, says Vincent. All Leon design is now carried out in-house by head of design Jo Ormiston, under direction from Vincent and Dimbleby (McEvedy, a chef, left the business in 2009 but remains a shareholder), and the brand has built up a book of dos and don’ts, highlighting past mistakes in menus and graphics.
“One of the mistakes people often made with the Leon brand is that they made things look too pastiche, adding scrolls and typewriter fonts and unnecessarily skewing images for no reason. It’s important that things are precise and deliberate, otherwise it just feels inauthentic,” Vincent says.
“It should also look fresh and in the moment – I hate when people say ‘I love your retro packaging’, because it’s meant to be evocative, but not retro,” he adds. Flicking through examples in the brand’s head office, other common mistakes Vincent cites include making things feel too Americana, or Northern European, and making graphics which look too “arts and crafts-y”.
Copywriting, too, must strike the right balance between friendly and informal, without adopting a childlike or overtly jokey tone, says Vincent. Copy is now written in house by brand and marketing manager Saskia Sidey, but Vincent cites both Dimbleby and radio ad copywriter Paul Burke with establishing Leon’s tone of voice and slogans for individual products, such as its power smoothie (the brand also claims to have launched the original Superfood Salad).
“At the time, friends of ours had just set up innocent [the smoothies and drinks brand founded by Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright, largely credited with sparking the recent trend for ‘wackaging’] and it was great, but we knew we didn’t want to be that cutesy. A lot of brands nowadays adopt quite a childlike tone, but we were conscious we wanted to be a grown-up brand, talking to grown-ups,” explains Vincent.
“Words can often get very chummy, cheeky or friendly but we try to be real and honest, although sometimes tongue-in-cheek,” adds Sidey.
The guiding principles of Leon’s design – familiar but fresh, colourful but ‘authentic’ -are also applied to interiors: while menus are the same in each, furniture, fittings, imagery and even signage varies, and in an added personal touch, each restaurant features photographs from a different family album (Vincent says he and his co-founders were keen to avoid impersonal stock imagery in both restaurants and branding). There are photos of Dimbleby’s mother’s travels in Syria in one, Vincent’s family holidays in the Mediterranean in another and at the Stansted airport branch, black and white photographs of Vincent’s aunt, a former air hostess.
When planning the look of a new restaurant, Vincent says Leon will often use a new album as a starting point, or the history of the site itself. Its King’s Cross branch, for example, retains some of the features from when it was a first class ladies’ waiting room, with furniture and armchairs selected to match, while its Victoria Place site houses mirrors from its time as a ballroom. As the brand continues to expand, Vincent says Leon will continue to look for sites with a little character.
For sites that lack history, Vincent says the brand often invents a narrative to guide the design concept – its Ludgate Circus branch, for example, was imagined as the fruit and veg shop-turned-café prequel to the inaugural Carnaby Street Leon, set up by an Italian owner upon arriving in London. It may sound strange, but as Vincent explains, it can help establish a sense of authenticity in interiors.
“When you’re in a Leon restaurant, we don’t want it to feel like you’re in a coffee chain – it should feel as crafted and loved as if it was our only restaurant, rather than full of mass manufactured products from Seattle or somewhere,” he adds. While he credits interior designer Bambi Sloan with helping ‘inject humanity’ into Leon’s restaurants, Vincent says this approach was also inspired by the late Wally Olins, who advised Leon from the outset.
“Wally gave us guidance from the start, and one of the things he felt was that too many brands these days are too bullying. You walk into their space and it’s as if you are owned by them. He felt that the high street needed to have some humanity in it – it’s all about how you put a brand in the high street, but make it sympathetic to the area,” he says. “Leon also has to be multi generational – we want to see people eating with their parents and grandparents, and [restaurants] should feel special but accessible.”
With plans to open a dozen new sites this year, the challenge for Leon now is to retain its distinct personality as it grows bigger, while ensuring some consistency in its approach. Ormiston still uses a great deal of Curtis’ original imagery, but has also created a new range of brightly coloured geometric packaging for coffee cups, chocolate bars and its milk free almond shakes, with designs inspired by patterns on the floor tiles in its restaurants. The streamlined geometric look borrows from Curtis’s designs, but is also more in keeping with the brand’s new ‘lean and clean’ ethos, a concept Ormiston says will be running through the menus and is part of a campaign to encourage healthy living.
“John has a phrase that everything we design should look like its full of sun, and so everything I’m trying to do at the moment is about looking bold and beautiful but very crisp and fresh. The geometric look is based on promoting the idea of lean and clean, without straying too far from the original brand imagery,” she adds.
In keeping with this approach, the Leon website was recently redesigned, moving from a ‘brown paper bag’ look to a slicker, responsive design. Menus too, designed by Ormiston and Cainã Bertussi, are considerably more minimal than the brown paper ones introduced in 2004.
With regular menu changes, Ormiston says designs are constantly evolving – “our nutrition team is always on top of their game, looking for what’s new and exciting, so the design should be too. We have seasonal changes around five times a year,” she says – but the brand is keen to retain the colourful visuals established by Curtis in its early days, albeit alongside some more minimal designs.
Beyond its restaurants and cookbook series, which now includes ten titles, Leon is also looking to change the way young people eat in the UK: Vincent and Dimbleby have been advising the government on how to improve nutrition and food education in schools (see schoolfoodplan.com) and through its not-for-profit arm, the Leon Foundation, has set up a Cook5 programme encouraging young chefs to get cooking and share photos of recipes online for rewards. With business going so well in London, there are also plans to launch the brand in the US, as well as in more cities around the UK.
“Opening in places like King’s Cross and Heathrow Terminal 2 has really given us a sense that it shouldn’t just be a London thing, ” says Vincent. “It was never intended to be a London thing, but now we’ve had a lot of reassurance from people that they’d like to see Leon close to home in other parts of the world.”