In Focus

EXCLUSIVE: How Leon Make Their Brand Sing

Following on from the opening of Leon's West End singing restaurant, QSR sat down with Brand and Marketing Director Kirsty Saddler to find out more about the unique restaurant, and what's in-store for the healthy fast food chain.

What made you decide to open the singing store in the West End?

Several reasons. It started towards the end of last year, with the perfect marriage of a great site and team discussions about how crucial it is for our stores to reflect the areas they are in. The Shaftesbury site certainly isn’t the first site where we’ve done something a little different- for example in Richmond we created a partnership with Kew Gardens and in Southwark we put a lot of effort into reflecting the nearby Borough market – but it is probably the most committed.

Our Founder, John Vincent, also drew inspiration from his family’s love of musical theatre and a family trip to Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square. It all came together about 8 weeks prior to our opening, when we decided that we wanted a restaurant where our servers sing.

Our company philosophy is also to help our staff be their best selves, and we think this store really enables that to happen.

We have a lot of performers working across our stores, so we know what that lifestyle means. The work of performers is very inconsistent, and they often times aren’t doing what they’d love to be doing, while they wait to be cast. It felt brilliant to be able to enable young, aspiring actors to bring their passion to their day job. It wasn’t easy to set up, but we’re really proud that we’ve been able to make a success of it.

How does it work in practice?

We operate like any other Leon except that from midday every day showtime begins. What this means in practice is that on rotation every 10-15 mins, a team member will stop their service, and begin singing a song of their choice, to a backing track, while moving through the restaurant. Most of the team are show tunes singers, and we have more performances over busy times.

How did you approach the hiring process for this restaurant?

We began by searching for performers. We knew the worst thing we could do would be to look for people who wanted a restaurant career, who just happened to be alright singers. To make this work, we had to get people whose passion was performance but who were happy to work at a restaurant while they waited for roles.

To do this we advertised at local performance schools, put an ad in The Stage, used social media and PR coverage, and tapped in to performing networks. When applications were sent in we asked for them to be accompanied by backing tracks, and we then had 4 audition days.

The young people performed two tracks live for our CEO and a number of celebrity supporters – Helen George, Alexander Armstrong, Jay Aston and Anna Shaffer. And our Director of People and Head of Recruitment were on hand to ask pertinent questions. Things were very much related to their ability of performers and their desire to make it as a performer.

One of our measures of success in this store is that our performers will actually be cast in productions.We saw 80 performers and selected the team of about 40 from there. We’ve had to over-recruit for this restaurant as these are a group of people that need more flexibility in terms of taking time off for castings and performances.

Since opening we’ve seen an uptick in applications too, to the point that we now have a good pipeline of people looking to join.

Have any team members has job offers as a result of working at the store?

We’ve had four team members be cast in professional performances so far: poached or recognised so far. We can’t name names Julie Cloke, Katy Reynard, Tessa and Aaron Thomas Bennett. A few have been taken on by agents and one (Eddie Monroe) has released a single.

In what other ways do you support these team members?

We pay for team members to get one on one singing coaching each month, and we have a rehearsal space for staff too. In addition, we’ve made sure that their uniforms have their stage names emblazoned on the back and our website has all their bios and headshots. We want to ensure that our staff members and their talents are as conspicuous as possible.

We’ve actually found that the camaraderie in the store is fantastic.

How do you balance the focus you put on these team members with the staff at your other stores?

We have lots of staff perks, bonding and recognition plans across the company. For example on a daily basis we recognise staff who have shown ‘glimpses of brilliance’. We also have quarterly rewards across 5 key metrics. We also have a strong focus on well-being, where bi-annually the restaurants are given a budget to go out as a team so the members can meet up outside the restaurant. We also have a Wellbeing Centre Director, based in one of our stores, where we offer free yoga, relaxation and wing chun classes twice a week. We also give 60% discount to staff and friends.

What else is in the pipeline for Leon?

We have the opportunity to open more regional sites. We’ve just opened in Trafford and will open a restaurant in central Manchester next to Piccadilly Station in the summer. We see huge opportunity there, together with moves further afield. Our second Schiphol Airport site has opened and we intend to open a third in Utrecht later in the year.
Aside from this, we’re also looking at different formats, perhaps larger outlets such as our Oxford store where there is more space for families to come on weekends, together with moving some of our burger and wrap products into stores they may not currently be in.

What brand trends are you seeing?

I think the reality is, that with Brexit and economic uncertainty, we’re not seeing as much energy or confidence or new trends as we saw last year. I think that’s a shame for the market as a whole as its been consistently proven that investing in your brand during the downtimes pays dividends when the economy turns around. But beyond that I think we’re seeing a lot of questioning about the whole ‘clean eating’ phenomenon and if it’s too puritanical about what and how people should eat. Our philosophy of tasty, natural food fits has never wavered, so we feel happy that we’ve been able to be ourselves throughout these trends that come and go.

What do you think sets Leon apart?

I think it’s our authenticity. We’re very self-aware. We do not over promise and have stayed true to our belief that if it tastes good, and is produced in as natural a way as possible then it will do you good, and probably do better than a lot of the other offerings in the market.

I think we view ourselves quite broadly too. I don’t think we see ourselves as just being a food business. We see ourselves as a business that believes in well-being, in people being their best selves and in happiness. So if I were to take an example – to look at our packaging- it’s not something that is only functional - it celebrates beauty, positivity and great food.
But our brand is lively – we don’t think we’ve ever fixed it or that it’s ever perfect – it’s a living, breathing entity. Each one of our stores is quite different. It’s hard to work that way within a brand construct but we believe in it and it works for us.

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