Natural, healthy fast food lifting produce to new heights

Leon salad box

Almost everything on the menu at Leon includes fresh produce

Juicebaby interior1
Juicebaby needs top quality produce, especially for its raw dishes

The healthy fast food revolution is set to thrive. With the dietary war on sugar and carbs raging and ‘plant-based’ food firmly in vogue, fresh produce has never been as well positioned to take the limelight on the high street and beyond

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that there’s been an influx of mid-range healthy fast food restaurant chains around the country, designed to cater for our every healthy need.

Whether it’s a pot of portable porridge, carb-free sandwiches (yep, that’ll be a salad) or on-the-go protein in the form of a tub of ready-to-eat raw spinach and a boiled egg, gone are the days when a tired sandwich or a calorific burger were your only fast food options.

In what could be seen as an extension of the skinny latte brigade, these new healthy outlets, such as Eat, Leon and Pod, are doing for fresh produce what Costa and Caffè Nero did for coffee in the 2000s. Making it accessible and trendy. And extensions of the movement are pouring onto the long-neglected high street and train stations, with juice and health food bars making their mark on our everyday eating habits.

Marketing its wares as “naturally fast food”, Leon’s founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent set out to prove that it was possible to serve food that both tastes good and is good for you in 2004 and now the chain numbers 21 restaurants, with plans to open 12 more this year.

As well as serving breakfast and lunch options, the chain now offers dinner in certain locations, delivering halloumi burgers, Italian brown rice pots, kale Caesar salads and baked fries.

“When we first started Leon, people thought it was an extraordinary idea,” says Vincent, whose team claims to have invented the first superfood salad. “But it wasn’t – it was really obvious!

“We were well received from the moment we opened, and won the Observer Food Monthly Best Newcomer Award in 2005. We constantly strive to innovate with our menu and like to create blockbuster fast food brands, like the Fish Finger Wrap and our new range of Egg Muffins.”

Taking fresh produce to another level, with Vitamin Hit and Supergreen Detox Blitzes, Kale and Leek Detox Boost Soup and raw energy salads, fellow healthy fast-food provider Pod is also taking fresh produce consumption up a notch across more than 20 outlets in London.

“We have helped change the way people eat on the move by being one of the first to serve up porridge to go in 2005, scrambling fresh superfood eggs to order since 2009 and creating our famous Energy Pods in 2011,” says founder Tim Hall in his mission statement. “We love innovation in fast food and we seek inspiration from across the culinary world.”

Leon’s most successful meal since January is the Chicken Chorizo Club Hot Box, which features protein on a bed of brown rice and is naturally gluten-free. The chain is currently launching a Lamb and Rhubarb Koresh for spring.

“Everything on our menu is fresh, so it’s in pretty high demand,” says Vincent, who adds that almost everything on the Leon menu includes fresh produce. “Fresh produce is always going to be better quality [than other foods]. People are gravitating away from pre-packaged food. Our customers like that they can see their fresh food being made in our restaurants.”

Next step: health bars

This healthy attitude has encouraged other businesses to set up shop, most prominently in the English capital. Concentrating on plant food, health food juice bar and café Juicebaby has been tempting people to “eat themselves happy” in Chelsea since September 2014.  

“The food catering industry’s health food revolution has mainly been in response to consumer demand,” says Aida Foustok, Juicebaby founder and co-director. “More people are becoming health conscious, whether it be health-, allergy- or beauty-related, or simply developing a more intimate relationship with their food. They are becoming a lot more mindful about nutrition, hence the need for convenience health food options on the go.”

As a raw and plant-based establishment, Juicebaby relies on its creativity with fruits and vegetables and considers produce to be the cornerstone of the business. With a 'little by little' philosophy, the idea is that by making small substitutions, like coconut oil instead of butter for instance, will gradually make a significant impact on diet and wellbeing, without you really noticing.

“Fresh produce is crucial when producing food in this manner as you can't disguise poor quality produce with processed ingredients or deep frying,” says the co-founder of Juicebaby, which makes all its cold-pressed juice, smoothies, breakfast and lunch offerings daily.

“We emphasise the use of raw produce in our dishes and therefore the produce needs to be top quality. We're most proud of our Taco Bowl or Raw Caramel Bar, as most people tend to be surprised by the fact that they are entirely plant-based and don’t include processed ingredients or sugars. We love to show people that you can still indulge in delicious treats and snacks made from organic, nutritious whole foods.”

Local and organic suppliers are needed

But how sustainable is the healthy fast food trend when it comes to supply? Leon uses a few fresh produce companies that provide a wide range of fruits and vegetables, but likes to source produce from as close as possible to reduce the food miles.

“The salad leaves and cabbage we use in our restaurants are grown in Tonbridge, Kent, season permitting,” explains Vincent. “But it is quite difficult to find seasonal British fruit due to the short seasons in the UK. We are currently looking at suppliers who will give us batches of seasonal fresh fruit.

“It would be great to get closer to the actual farms and even have our own farms for eggs and chicken. There are lots of great little farms around, but due to the size of our business, it’s not always possible to use them.”

Foustok also admits that finding the right suppliers has been quite a challenge, due to the fact that Juicebaby only sources organic produce – or tries to, since its philosophy promotes the use of fresh, ripe and locally-sourced organic produce.

“A fruit and vegetable less travelled usually means it is fresher, more nutritious and better tasting,” argues the co-founder, who feels that more organic suppliers are needed in the UK. “Nevertheless, for some ingredients it’s been quite difficult to source entirely organic, such as seaweed and coconut yoghurt, so we try to scope out suppliers that use methods free from agro chemicals and those still adhering to 'organic' practices, even without the costly certification.

“Having more locally-grown produce would also be great as it seems the most competitively priced produce, as well as the best quality, comes from either mainland Europe or even further afield.”



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