Leon food chain: A day in the life

Dave Waller is all but overwhelmed by a hungry mob at upmarket lunch joint Leon. Can he keep his 'happy to help' smile?

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I'm experiencing the Sharp End of the food industry this month, as I spend a day serving up halloumi burgers and aioli wraps at the Bankside branch of Leon.

True to its position higher up the take-away food chain, they do things differently at Leon. Not for them boring titles like 'manager'. Instead, every branch head is given the title of 'mum' or 'dad'.

Not only is it a bit weird, but given there's only one head per branch, it also means forcing employees to grow up in a single parent company. At least there are plenty of 'aunties' and 'uncles' (deputies) around to bestow that extra love in the form of amended shift rotas and other such gifts.

The fact is, even cuddly and responsible fast food is still fast food, so I guess anything you can do to improve the atmosphere can only be a good thing.

I arrive at the tail end of the breakfast shift to be dispatched, in hair net and chef's trousers, to the kitchen - among the pot wash and the porridge pans. It's a quiet time that largely involves getting prepped for the mania of lunch.

I'm working with a couple of Poles, Maciek and Jarek. Maciek has been at Leon for five years, Jarek since he arrived in the country six months ago. Both are bright and have perfect English, and reveal that London still has way more to offer than their homeland, even in the downturn. They make about £7.50 an hour and benefits include a bonus-related structure, parties, free meals and payday drinks.

Jarek talks me through the ingredients, laughing as he tries to remember exactly what we need to cover lunch. This is the key to any form of fast food: the system.

Constructing a chicken box, I learn, means one scoop of salad, one of brown rice, one of chicken, a squirt of aioli in an 'M' shape, and a light spread of seeds and herbs, plus a piece of lemon.

There are 1,925g of sauce to a 1,080g batch of meatballs, three gherkin slices in each wrap, 100g of fries per packet; it's 35 seconds in the grill for a halloumi burger, 45 for a wrap; and that incessant beeping isn't just your brain reacting to the overload: it could mean anything from 'your fries are done' to 'it's time to wash your hands'.

It's already warm in the kitchen, but things really heat up for the lunch period as extra bodies flood in.

When the orders start arriving, I'm bounced between burgers and wraps on one side and salads and boxes on the other. I've no idea what's going on. People in the middle of making one thing shout 'yep!' to four or five new orders.

Dave Waller prepares for the lunch time rush

I stand in the middle feeling stupid, slowly shovelling rice into cardboard boxes. A Spanish woman whose name I didn't catch shows me how to make a fish-finger wrap, then gets me knocking up enough to stick out on the 'pass', the shelving between the kitchen and the front. My efforts are slow and look baggy.

Jarek gets me making halloumi burgers and dumps them on the pass, shouting 'Halloumi burger 400'. It may sound like a vegetarian robot, but it's actually a code that tells them it's a completed order.

There are other codes: 100 means a customer has entered the restaurant, 300 means tables need cleaning. Jarek tells me the team has invented its own codes too. 'A hot girl has just walked in is 700,' he says.

For the second half of the rush I'm released from the heat of the kitchen - and sent out to serve the lunching middle-class hordes.

I hate doing this kind of job: I can't handle empty stomachs encountering my own ineptitude.

Luckily, I'm under the protection of Justina, a Lithuanian who's been at Leon for a couple of years while studying music and arts management. She's got the Leon thing down: waving at people about half a mile away to get their attention and beaming a big smile as she bounces around sorting out their orders.

As I 'help' on till duties, my sixth sense kicks in: I know the mob is escalating, even though my focus is absolutely fixed on my fingertip as it snakes around the till hunting for the button for flatbreads.

At the start, I'm engaging and cheery, calling people over, taking their requests and their cash. But, after half an hour of trying to smile, count and press buttons at the same time, my 'happy to help' face is just happy to avoid eye contact.

I can only offer full respect to those who manage to maintain such a bouncy demeanour. Mum and dad must be very proud ...

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