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sprucing up the british staple: leon co-founder talks school dinners, business expansion and the london food scene

When Henry Dimbleby and his business partner John Vincent founded Leon fourteen years ago, the premise was founded on the appetite-inducing question, what would McDonald’s be like in heaven?

Chiller cabinet sandwiches and unhealthy fast food had taken their toll on the pair, who were working as management consultants at the time. So, they set out to make fast-food good food.

“Why does fast food have to be bad food?” asked Henry on last night’s Capital Conversation, “People want to eat quickly and they shouldn’t have to eat rubbish.”

It was this belief that founded Leon, the healthy fast food chain that first opened its doors on Carnaby Street in 2004 and has since grown to 53 locations – including three in the Netherlands and US expansion slated for later this year.

Henry stepped down from the chain’s board in August 2017 after a private equity firm invested in the business. It’s not something he ever imagined doing at one time: “when you’re running a company you have to be 100 per cent focused, you don’t even think about moving aside.

“Gradually we came to an agreement and actually when I stood down as CEO and handed over, I realised I did that about 18 months too late.”

He has gone on to spearhead ‘Chefs in Schools’, an initiative that aims to put 100 restaurant chefs in 100 schools by 2023. Patrons include Prue Leith, food writer Diana Henry and Yotam Ottolenghi.

It’s a programme inspired by his children’s school, Gayhurst Community College in Hackney, who tempted Nicole Pisani away from her head chef role at Ottolenghi’s NOPI restaurant to take the reigns in the school kitchen.

“I think there is definitely a cultural breakthrough that is going to happen,” says Henry. “In the old days, no-one would be seen dead cooking in a school or hospital.” This enthusiasm to try new things from some of the country’s top chefs has, according to Henry, seen London become the world capital for food.

“Paris hasn’t moved forward at all. The London food scene is better than New York. It is the most vibrant, exciting food scene in the world.

“[However] no-one is making any money… but they don’t care, they just want to do something amazing.”

Why did Henry feel the need to step into the public sector? “The nature of democracy and the civil service will mean that sometimes if you come from a fast-moving entrepreneurial system you’ll find it frustrating. So, you can either, in an arrogant way, say ‘it’s all rubbish I won’t get involved’, or you can say ‘where can I tweak it? How can I help?’”

And he says it’s time for entrepreneurs to turn their criticisms of the public sector into real action, despite their inhibitions.

“There’s a real arrogance towards the public sector generally amongst private sector people who think they can do it better. If you think you can do it better, go and do it because that will have more impact on society than your business will.”

You can watch the full episode here.

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