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Global Foodservice: Keeping it real
Brussels icon Chez Léon stays true to roots while franchises expand reach
By Anthony fletcher
June 05, 2012
Rue des Bouchers, a narrow cobbled street just a stone’s throw away from Brussels’ historic Grand Place, is crammed with seafood restaurants. The oldest of these is Chez Léon, which since 1893 has strived to brand itself as the place to visit in order to experience real Belgian food. The branding strategy is very much focused on giving customers the genuine Belgian dining experience.
“This is the original place,” says Commercial Director Thierry Scheers. “It is without pretention. If you go to EuroDisney, you become a kid again, because you are surrounded by things from your childhood. Everyone in Belgium grows up with sole, mussels and frites. So for Belgians who come to Chez Léon, they remember these things from their childhood.”
This is evident from the restaurant’s interior, which, through a series of expansions over the decades, can now seat 420. A conscious effort has been made to connect with the family-owned restaurant’s turn of the century roots, with white-tiled walls, cosy brickwork and black-and-white photos of former patrons and chefs on the wall.
“We adapt to new technologies, of course, in terms of hygiene, social media, etc.,” says Scheers. “But the feel of this restaurant should be like a Jaguar. This is why the architecture has stayed the same.”
Mario Zucca, the maitre d’ who has worked at the restaurant for 45 years, agrees that consistency has been key to the restaurant’s success. “The food hasn’t changed, the cuisine is solid and the business is still family-based,” he says. “That’s why people stay.”
The seafood menu includes oysters, sea snails, eels and lobster. And, of course, mussels. “Moules frites” is arguably Belgium’s national dish, and Chez Léon markets itself as the place to go to sample this. “Belgians are a friendly people,” says Scheers. “Eating mussels can be a little inelegant, but for us, a good dinner is more important than a party.” A plate of moules frites costs €20 ($25), trout meuniere with almonds is around €16 ($20), while at the top end, bouillabaisse with lobster is €50 ($64).
The international mussel trade has risen over the last 20 years in terms of total volume, with Belgians consistently munching through more mussels per capita than any other European country. Some 99 percent of mussels consumed in Belgium come from the Netherlands. Most mature, large-scale producing nations, such as France and the Netherlands, have broadly stabilized production; the main source for incremental output is from peripheral nations such as the U.K., Norway and Ireland.
Chez Léon has for years worked with Netherlands supplier Triton, which ensures that the restaurant knows exactly what it is getting.
“We are in daily contact with them,” he says. “Mussels are picked at 1 a.m., delivered at 6 a.m., because, of course, light is the enemy. They are delivered in cotton bags so that water can drain out, and they are tagged, for traceability.” Every morning, fish is bought at the Brussels fish markets in the historic St. Catherine quarter.
The business has been careful about expanding its brand. This is why the Chez Léon on Rue des Bouchers remains the only one in the world, and the business uses this “uniqueness” as a key selling point. There are, however, a number of Léon de Bruxelles restaurants, which are independent franchises that pay royalties to the Chez Léon family.
“In 1989, due to the success in Brussels, I decided to introduce the label in Paris,” explains Chez Léon President Rudy Vanlancker. “Going abroad with the Léon concept is really going abroad with a product, but also, and mainly, communicating an atmosphere, a state of mind.” There are now more than 60 Léon de Bruxelles restaurants in France and one in Beirut. The most recent new franchise opened in London in January.
By making a conscious effort to keep the Brussels Chez Léon unique, the business has been careful not to dilute its original success. “Family is very much the basis of our restaurant,” says Scheers. “And everything is very Belgian. It’s about the pleasure of discovering a national cuisine.”
Contributing Editor Anthony Fletcher lives in Brussels