Restaurant to Retail: lessons from Leon’s pioneering supermarket strategies

This week, healthy fast food chain Leon announced they would be leaving the US market, having closed their outposts in Washington DC and Virginia. The brand said that while they hope to be back in the future, the pandemic has “taken its toll”, with their focus now solely on the UK and Europe.

Leon was formed in 2004 by entrepreneur John Vincent and currently has 44 restaurant sites in the UK. They also have a growing portfolio in major UK retail after having first launched 16 products exclusively into Sainsbury’s in 2019.

Since then, Leon have established themselves as young stalwarts of the emerging restaurants to retail market in the UK, which has become perhaps more relevant than ever before due to the effects of the global pandemic and its ongoing impact on the hospitality industry.

Only three weeks ago, the brand launched their popular range of sauces and mayos into The Vegan Kind Supermarket, with David Marston – category expert at R2R experts Taste Shakers – explaining that Leon are still reaping the rewards from their initial retail strategies.

Understanding retail⁠

“Leon won in retail by getting the right experts onto the team from day one,” David told me.

“They cleverly added to the vision of John Vincent with experts including ex-buyers and senior management from Sainsbury’s.

“One of these was Charlotte Di Cello, now commercial director at Waitrose. She brought a significant amount of experience with Sainsbury’s to the table having worked in various strategic category, buying and ‘head of’ roles for the chain.

“She really understands retail, and this allowed Leon unique insight and reach into Sainsburys, and an understanding of how to make a restaurant brand work for the channel.

“John Vincent hit the nail on the head when he said, ‘You can’t do grocery by halves, you have to do it in a way that doesn’t take away from the restaurant.’

“Clearly, he understood the exciting opportunity that the retail channel offers, but also the need to do it in the right way, maximising the opportunity through both channels and having the right people and team involved to execute it successfully.”

Building an empire (and watching out for challengers)

“Leon approached the relationship with Sainsbury’s in a sensible way, initially targeting areas of strength and the related categories in store where they could offer a real point of difference to existing FMCG brands,” continued David.

“This included sauces and condiments – a category which, in grocery, traditionally has high churn and innovation but is nevertheless worth over £1bn and grew by 18% in 2020 – as well as oils, vinegars, and in the bakery category.

“Launching in these areas and working with the right team has enabled Leon to develop a core business base, which allowed it to push off into other categories, and open doors to credible conversations with other buyers.

“Leon has since launched further into breads – where added value products are capturing shopper spend – chilled dips, where it already has SKUs in the top 10 best-selling lines in the retailer, and ready meals, traditionally a heavily private-label category.

“They’ve also launched smaller side dishes, cold meats and other snacks.

“This just goes to show that, handled in the right way, and with the right relationships, brands can really launch into multiple categories in a successful way. And quickly.

“The main thing to watch out for though for Leon is to ensure they have the right ongoing category approach to maintaining and building the business.

“Other brands will target them and be snapping at their heels if sales start to drift. This includes maintaining innovation, as well as understanding how consumers are interacting with the brand and building a category strategy to take advantage of this.”

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Chandos Elletson
Chandos is the publisher and co-founder of PURE NPD. A former food writer for The Times, Chandos was also one of the three founders of Restaurant magazine and instrumental in the creation of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Chandos is also a winner of the Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year award.

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