Robyn Wilson met up with Sat at Lean Lunch, to discover there’s a lot more to this Leeds food outlet and its owner than you might think.
What were your reasons for creating Lean Lunch and what’s the overall concept?
We launched in July 2017, so three years ago now. The why behind it is about wellbeing and sustainability. From the wellbeing perspective it’s about encouraging healthy eating in the workplace with a view that it directly impacts mental and physical wellbeing and productivity in the workplace. We think it’s the right thing to do for your staff.
So we started off working with companies on the basis of mobility of sourcing that food for employees. The employees can order from us directly or companies can hire us for meetings. The other important thing about the food is that we are real foodies, and we are proof that healthy food can be delicious and tastes great. Obviously, food is emotional so it starts with your eyes and smell and then the taste. The thing with healthy food is it can have a bad image and be deemed to not look, smell or taste great.
I completely agree. It’s often said to non meat eaters. ‘’What do you live on? Lettuce and rabbit food?’’ Which sounds extremely boring and non appetising, when you know the variety of tasty foods you consume are plant-based.
That leads into another important point from our food offering perspective, which is we cover all the key dietary requirements, which from the start have planned to be plant-based. The only meat option we have is chicken, which we source locally. We also use fish that has been sustainably sourced. But we make sure we have a big majority of plant-based nutrition in our meals, so by plant-based what we mean is, yeah, you might want to eat chicken or fish but your meal is going to be essentially full of plants as well as that.
The way we develop the meals is everything starts off as a vegan dish and then we simply add the fish or the meat, so essentially you are getting all the goodness you should be getting from more plant-based eating, so we are not excluding anybody but we are making sure the outcome is you are eating really well.
We are just coming through one of the biggest health pandemics and I think it’s clear that as a country we have a lot of issues of diet related illnesses and we are deficient in fibre, fruit and veg. We don’t eat enough plant-based foods. You know – colourful fruit and veg. One of our biggest goals is to banish the beige. How often do you look at food? If you look at a classic lunchtime offering in the market prior to the pandemic, it still exists now but there is lots of beige food offered at corporate buffets.
The culture here, is that lunch is a grab and go fuel. If you look at the way other people treat lunch, it’s considered the most important meal of the day.
The one you are eating while you are trying to stay focussed.
Yeah. If we send our children to school we send them to learn and to perform and to have the right attention. A learning and performance environment is what you would describe school as. Work is the same, and we would be gobsmacked if we walked into school and saw a vending machine full of crisps, chocolate and coca-cola.
That’s what was provided at my school. (laughs)
Well, yeah, that’s what it was like at my school growing up, but how often I walk into companies and what still exists is when it comes to the workplace and wellbeing that people haven’t thought through this idea at all. I have heard conversations with big companies saying how much of an uproar there will be if they remove the vending machine. And that’s ironically what I used to say to myself pre lockdown.
So obviously now, people aren’t coming into the workplace. So it’s not such a big problem. The ethos in the workplace is huge. That’s a crucial part, but most importantly trying to explain to people the benefits of eating well is a hard sell. Health is a hard sell because of the conflicting messages, so we are not specifically about weight loss or about muscle gain. We are not about any of that. Our view is that we aren’t prescribing a diet; just saying eat natural, whole ingredients.
Get the nutrients and minerals that you need to stay healthy every day.
Yes, foods with a lot of colour, lots of variety, as plant-based as possible and to be honest if that’s done consistently you will have positive outcomes, mentally and physically.
That’s all you need to think about. I think it’s too complicated when you start to look at all the diet options. From a sustainability perspective we are very clear at the start that we are pre-order only. So you can’t order on the day and you only order what you are going to eat. So ordering at least one day in advance means that we source the food, package and deliver only the food you are going to eat. So there’s very little wastage.
So, do people order for the whole day or just one meal?
They can order up up to 10 days in advance, so you look at your calendar and our calendar and menu, then you basically say I’m in the office for these 4 out of 7 days. On those 4 days you just select the meals from the menu and we deliver them.
So is everything fresh on the day?
Yeah, we don’t pre deliver 4 meals; we just package and deliver on the day.
That is brilliant.
The customer gets maximum freshness and package personalised but we buy the food that’s going to be eaten, which if you think about it in a typical retail environment, they have to always stock more than they are going to sell because you don’t want empty shelves, but then there’s food waste.
How important is tackling food waste to you in general? If you cater to corporate business meetings or events, I’m assuming you still see lots of food being wasted.
I think food waste is most underestimated, under-reported, and that the vast majority are not aware of the impact it has all the way through the supply chain; the impact it has on the environment and also the sort of dichotomy of it all. Stats from the UN are that 30% of food produced is wasted – so that’s from the supply chain all the way to the food produced – is wasted, which contributes to 10% greenhouse emissions, which impacts climate change. It’s huge. But then a third of the world in the poorest countries are nutrient deficient and short of food. So isn’t it bizarre that the richer countries are wasting all this food which is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, just because we don’t need it and are rich enough to not eat it? Then there’s a third of the world struggling to sustain themselves and are starving. We are just throwing food away. It’s a massive issue that needs to be tackled. So whether that’s companies or individuals that need to do more, I don’t think it’s about pointing fingers. I think there’s just a massive exercise required to educate people about how much of a necessity it is to reduce food waste.
Not everybody can afford to get solar panels put on their house or even drive an electric car, but everyone eats every single day. Everyone has the power to control what they are eating every day, so eating more sustainable plant-based foods. Once again, I’m being diet non-specific, so even if that’s just changing one meal or having more plants in all your meals. Be very conscious about the food you waste; that’s something everybody can do. If you can change your habits in those ways, it will help. We have tried to tackle it in a very small way.
I guess it comes down to the whole marketing of fast food as well. I have noticed very cheap oven food supermarkets are in the poorer areas.
That’s an interesting topic because that’s more leaning into the work I do with FoodWise. You know one of the pillars for Foodwise is healthier eating for lower socioeconomic groups. As the pandemic has proved, there are globally notable examples in the US and the UK. The people that have had the worst outcomes from COVID are from people in the worst social economic circumstances and they are analyzing these people having the worst health outcomes. They basically have a higher rate of diabetes , heart disease, obesity etc. They have less money and are surrounded by unhealthy food options. That is a big issue. If you look at specifically this country, the chances depending on where you live of dying from COVID were 50% higher if you live in a poor area than if you live in a middle class area. Also, the outcome in terms of your life expectancy has a gap of 12 years. So if you live in one of the poorer areas, the difference between your life expectancy compared to a wealthy area is 12 years.
That’s a huge number.
The higher social-economic group has longer to live and if you look at what they are surrounded by in terms of options….. If you drive around Leeds and look at the poorer areas you see all the frozen food shops.
I live in one of those areas and when the lockdown was happening I would see all my neighbours carrying bags full of frozen foods stocking up on essential meals, but not questioning what foods they needed to consume to get their immune systems strong. They are thinking about how to feed their families for months to come as cheaply as possible, because they don’t know how they are going to survive money wise. On my street literally 90% of households were shopping at the frozen food places weekly.
So that’s a big issue, because the food environment has a massive impact, if you are surrounded by all the frozen food places and chicken takeaways where you can get a meal for a few pounds that’s fried. You cannot deny the fact that as a person with less money in your pocket you are going to make your decisions based on value for money. I would. If I only had £10 and I had to feed a family what would I do? I would go to the places where I could. So the systemic change needed for that is not going to happen easily.
The problem with that is nothing nationally has been said about how we are going to fix it. The problem with food environment health outcomes – because we are talking about a war on very simply a label which is obesity or fat – we are talking about the longer term to put in place, which is how are we in the next 5 to 10 years going to bring these locations up to a point where based on where you live or are raised doesn’t have such a big negative impact?
Instead of pumping billions into building more stuff, what about putting some money into subsidizing healthy food for people in the most need. What about encouraging people with better education about cooking with fruits and vegetables and investing in these things which will over time have an impact. Not immediately, but start to change this pattern where at the moment it looks like the pattern is just going to carry on because we have one health crisis and what happens when the next one happens?
Pulling out on what we do as a business, Lean Lunch isn’t tackling that. It’s a very difficult challenge, but we are trying to do different things. Some of that is what I do with FoodWise. The point is as relevant to companies as it is to policymakers. All of this comes back down to understanding that what we eat and how we eat has a real impact on our health outcomes and on the environment. Equally, it’s our biggest opportunity, because we are waiting for a vaccine, so we can be hitting the drum about everybody eating more healthy food now and building this message. Introduce health subsidies for poor people to have fruit and veg and tell everyone how important that is to their diet. Instead, we have created a culture of fear and this idea that the only way out is a vaccine. People could not wait for MacDonald’s to open, thinking that’s ok, instead of tackling the real issues.
From a Foodwise perspective, if you look at Leeds, there’re loads of people trying to fix some of these problems. They are all third sector not for profit who are all doing it because they care, with little or no budget, and it’s a lot of work. All you are doing is trying to make headway.
The odds are stacked against you.
Massively. If you look at Rethink Food, the guys that do all the food education into schools, we have Kevin on the board, we have Darren from Fair Share Leeds and a few charities in there. A really great bunch of people who all individually do loads of really important work in the City to help relieve food poverty, improve education.
But sustainability is a separate one. The non social-economic thing. I would argue that people with less money waste less. Food waste is separate from food health and outcomes which is lower. But from a waste perspective the sustainability agenda outcome is actually higher. Food waste is really high for people that can afford to waste food because they aren’t thinking about it. It’s just not on their radar. Lean Lunch uses a pre-order system, compostable packaging, packing made from veg and plants. We use an electric van and cargo cyclist for delivery, so we really work on this basis of trying to be as sustainable as possible. That’s what led me into the Foodwise discussion. (Sat is Chair on the board of Foodwise.)
Sustainability is one of the big agendas for the City and for food businesses that we have been trying to raise the profile of, i.e how do you become more sustainable? We aren’t addressing household communities and consumers because that’s huge. We are targeting the food industry, which ties in nicely with what I believe. But generally speaking, independent food businesses are always the ones that want to do the right thing compared with the big businesses. Their biggest challenge right now is what’s happening with the pandemic and how we come out of it. So is sustainability high enough on their agenda right now? Probably not. It’s survival.
How have Lean Lunch managed to keep moving forward with the lockdown?
A week before lockdown was announced we saw companies move quicker than the government was moving. They started to tell people we want you to work from home and because all of our orders come from employees ordering for work, or the businesses for meetings, we saw all our orders being cancelled within a week before lockdown. There were no food orders; we had literally zero business, at which point we had a decision to make about what we do. This was before the government announced lockdown and any measures to support lockdown. We decided that shutting down seemed an option to see how long it lasts, but then the next 24 hours we realised we could support people at home in a different way. We knew food was going to be a part of the journey for people, so we switched to home delivery and we introduced doing some produce such as fruit and veg boxes as part of that. We literally did that overnight and that got us moving in that direction.
It was really motivational doing a service. I felt pleased to be able to do something worthwhile. We got loads of great feedback from people because we were getting out to people that were isolated or vulnerable, and at this point supermarkets were really struggling with capacity, so we got a high amount of interest. One of our clients put £500 into a crowdfunding campaign to raise money towards meals for the NHS. That became about £4,000 worth of money, which we then used to produce meals for the NHS and for a couple of charities such as We Care Leeds. We basically ended up producing over 1,000 meals over 4 to 5 weeks for the NHS in Huddersfield, Bradford and Leeds.
We did some work with We Care Leeds. That was all done at cost, but what we had was a purpose and a real sense of doing our tiny little bit to be able to help. So we felt that on a personal level it was much needed. I just didn’t see myself sitting at home and not being able to do something really well. I have a young family and I’d probably have made things more difficult because I’d have been impatient and not being very helpful. The challenge has been in the last 3 to 4 weeks where people have got a lot more freedom and we haven’t invested in home delivery. The return to work hasn’t really happened so we are now in this position where we are in between the two.
We learnt about an innovation grant which was available as a UK competition and we applied for it with an idea called Good Box. It’s basically a fruit and veg box where you purchase your fruit and veg for delivery and as part of the purchase, £1 goes towards buying fruit and veg for deprived communities. So we positioned the idea and applied. We only had a week to fill it in and we were selected out of 9,000 applicants. We were selected 1 of 800 out of 9,000 so we just launched that 3 weeks ago and that is just piloting at the moment in LS8 and LS17. What we are doing is delivering to people in that area and then using the £1 they donate to provide food to Healthy Start. Healthy Start is a government-led scheme that provides healthy food options for people but mainly for young mums or expecting mothers in deprived communities that need fruit and veg or other healthy food. So we do our first delivery to them in East Leeds this month, so that’s been another brilliant thing to come out of this and we’ve had to innovate really quickly to get that off the ground.
What Lean Lunch is now doing is starting to talk to businesses on how we can support the return back to work and help create a work environment where your wellbeing is important. So can you subsidise healthy food – people are going to be coming into the office less but it might be for meetings. Food should be part of that, so when they come in you are helping them eat well. We are also talking to a few companies about this who are opening up without canteens. So it’s a sort of interesting time right now. I don’t know what the next 3 to 5 months is going to look like.
I have spoken to 2 or 3 companies this week. Their biggest challenge right now is at what point they go from saying it’s ok to work from home but we now have some capacity to work safely at work, so we need you to come to work. Most companies at the moment are finding that when they create a safe environment and allow a small bubble to come in, most of that bubble is not coming in. So I think a return to work is going to be a big question mark in September when schools go back, at which point hopefully for us and for everyone else in our position, we will see people coming back even if that’s not Monday to Friday.
I guess it’s about shifting people’s mentally around it.
Some companies are fine with people working from home but some people really need people to come back. But people aren’t coming back. As a business, we have looked at home deliveries, but in terms of fulfilment, customer acquisition, to invest in that we would have to have really deep pockets. We have spent years building a business offering, so we are going to revert back to that. It makes sense now more than ever: it’s sustainable, it’s convenient, it’s safe, it’s healthy and you know why wouldn’t a company want that as a part of their solution versus everything else on the market?So, we will see.
Thank you so much. You have really covered everything I wanted to touch on.
It was a pleasure to meet Sat, the man behind Lean Lunch and Chair of FoodWise, whose passion for wellbeing and sustainability in Leeds and for the world is inspiring. I came away from the conversation full of encouragement to not only consciously eat better, but also to question myself on food waste and my choices when it comes to sustainable living.
And now to sample some of Lean Lunch’s food
Sat generously prepared me two vegan options to try for my lunch. I finished the Mexican Vegan Goodness bowl in around two minutes. I could tell how fresh the food was just by looking at how crisp and bright it was. It is like eating a bowl of rainbow. It consisted of seasoned beans, quinoa, pickled cabbage, guacamole, sweet potatoes with a maple syrup taste and even a little pot of cashew sour cream. It had loads more than that, but just the perfect amount of variation – and very filling. I felt the goodness in my stomach after eating it and didn’t get that sluggish mood come over me which I have had with traditional fast foods.
I also had a veg pakora wrap which I enjoyed a few hours later. Again, the flavours from the pakora alone were delicious. The soft wholemeal wrap was stuffed full of colourful, varied textures and again filled me up without leaving me feeling rubbish afterwards.
I highly recommend Lean Lunch for your office and working lunches.