If you’ve ever been hungry on the way to work in Washington, DC, you know that there is a gauntlet of choices no matter where you turn. From the McDonald’s on every third corner to the boutique brunch spots, you can try something new every day until you die. So why did UK-based LEON on L St NW catch my eye?
Like many one-off restaurants or franchises built on a unique ideal, LEON operates under the mentality of “Why can’t fast food be good food?”. I have to say, I had never really thought about it. To me, the food venn-diagram of efficiency, price, and quality never really produced a contender for the coveted middle spot. With LEON’s arrival to DC, I’m happy to adjust the record.
Efficiency - LEON’s goal is to serve you within 45 seconds of reaching the front of the line
This is certainly an ambitious task, even the fast food chains that have their sandwiches made in advance can struggle to maintain that pace. But as I watched the lunch rush pour in and the lines fill up, I was rather amazed at how truly efficient the whole process was. Very few times did I see someone wait longer than 35-45 seconds from the time their wallet went back into their pocket to the time they were holding their meal.
Price - Well worth the difference
I’ll admit, I have no problem throwing down some extra dough for a lavish treat, and I’ve also got no issues with trading $1.07 for a subpar sausage, egg, and cheese. Just depends on the day I guess. That being said, LEON offers that lavish taste without making you feel like you should have spent that money buying Apple stock.
My top 3 menu items (The smoked salmon and avocado poached egg pot, the avocado feta toast customized with mixed seed garnish, and the smoked salmon and egg english muffin) all come in just shy of $5. First of all, who would have ever thought they would read the words “salmon” and “fast food” on the same page? And second of all, who could have imagined it would be absolutely incredible for that price?
Quality - “Fast food that is tastes fantastic, is surprisingly good for you, and kind to the planet”
When John Vincent and his cofounders Henry Dimbleby and chef Allegra McEvedy looked around for inspiration, they were drawn to the richness, flavors and natural healthiness of Mediterranean cooking. They base their food around the Mediterranean diet, meaning the menu focuses on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seeds and unrefined cereals. They replace butter with healthier fats such as olive oil, use spices and herbs instead of salt to flavor dishes and look to encourage more chicken and fish into the daily diet, with a little red meat thrown in for good measure.
I could rant and rave on and on about the food, but that’s only a small portion of why LEON made such an impact on me.
The moment I walked in, John Vincent, a tall and inviting gentleman, greeted me with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on anyone before 10 AM. He immediately offered me around to meet everyone he valued (everyone in the restaurant) on site and sat me down for a banquet my birdlike stomach had no way to prepare for. His genuine excitement and passion for the food he so painstakingly vetted for his restaurant almost made it taste even better, as he went into detail about the salmon, the fresh fruits and vegetables, and the stories behind the Full English Breakfast waiting for me at the other end of the table. As I started to fill up, we got to talking about why he chose DC for his first location in the USA. The other potential location was in Winter Park, Florida, just north of downtown Orlando. Having spent most of my life in Central Florida, I commended him on the decision to set up shop somewhere better. After a hearty laugh, we discussed the work and food culture of DC, the current presidency (spoiler alert, we hate it), and the general story behind LEON.
As the restaurant began to fill up and other duties needed attending to, John made sure I was content with my buffet and 4 different cups of coffee (all of which I needed) and went to save the day. I then struck up a conversation with Julian Hitch, LEON’s “Director of Well-Being”. My first request for him was to explain that title in one sentence. With a genuine smile and supreme confidence, he answered “Ensuring employee retention via genuine interaction and activity such as martial arts training and stretching”. I’ll admit, I’m quite a stranger to the corporate world, but that seems like something to compete with Google’s level of employee satisfaction. He went into further detail about his experience as a pioneer of “well-being” practices in the workplace. Julian has a degree in history and studied law, but the majority of his career has been as a martial artist (at 24, he became the youngest person in the world to achieve his 4th technician, equivalent to a 5th degree black belt) . He is currently co-authoring a book called “Winning, Not Fighting” with John with the goal of being a version of “The Art of War” with a positive and truly moral outlook on success. All bias toward John and Julian aside, I definitely want that book when it comes out. Julian also created a program called “The Kung-Fu Barista”, a 6-week course in which he trains employees in martial arts. Through their studies and analytics, the employees who participate in this course show significantly improved productivity and morale in the workplace.
I wasn’t going to ask Julian for a full on kung-fu lesson in the middle of the restaurant, so I settled for a simple stretching exercise to put his theory and experience to the test. About 7 minutes of upper body stretches later, I didn’t even need those 4 cups of coffee anymore. If there are any skeptics, I urge you to give it a try in the future, when Julian and John open the LEON Well-Being Center. There’s no set date yet, but their goal is to bring these practices of martial arts, stretching, and genuine interaction to the working public of DC, hopefully creating a culture of a less stressed working class.
Food and business aside, John and Julian are two of the most friendly, humble, and genuine people I’ve met in a very long time. They have since gone back to the UK to resume their daily task of managing the almost 60 branches across the pond, but their core philosophy; “Be Kind, Be a Leader, and Live And Eat Well” still show themselves in the smiles and actions of every employee currently chugging away at LEON on L St NW.
I wish LEON Restaurants the absolute best of luck in Washington, DC, and I urge everyone who finds themselves anywhere near L St NW to pop in and see these “Kung-Fu Baristas” in action.
Be Kind, Be a Leader, Live and Eat Well
Leon Restaurants USA
1724 L St NW, Washington, DC 20036