Alumna Restauranteur Offers Fresh Take on Fast Food

Matt Lindsay
Photography: Julie Ann Woodford
Published: Fall 2011

It was 1987. Annie Leconte, MBA, '99, left her native France and immigrated to the United States with her husband, Didier, and three young children.

She didn't know the language or much about U.S. culture. A successful retail entrepreneur in France, Leconte felt her best bet was to start at square one in her new homeland. She enrolled in English courses and studied for the GED.

But it wasn't just the language or education system that required an adjustment on her part.

"Coming here, of course, like everybody, I ate hot dogs and burgers," Leconte recalled. "But after a while I felt it on my waist, I said, 'No way, I can't go on like that.' "

Her children's love of what Leconte calls "fat fast food" made her hearken back to her diet in France, where she ate convenient meals crafted from fresh, natural ingredients.

"I've always liked cooking for family and friends. It's been my passion," Leconte said. "But coming here, because of the high-fat, fast-food environment, I wanted to be informed so I read a lot [about the food industry] and felt a trend, something coming."

From Concept to Reality

Fast forward nearly 20 years. The trend Leconte saw coming arrived.

U.S. sales of organic food increased from $1 billion in 1990 to $17 billion in 2006, spurring the rise of retailers like Whole Foods. Questions about the fast-food industry and public health have entered the public consciousness, thanks to the media and documentaries such as Super Size Me.

To capitalize on the renewed focus on healthy, natural foods—and the American love of convenience— Leconte, her husband and son Eric, BBA, '05, founded Erandis, LLC, parent company of the D.C.-based restaurant Litestars, in 2006. Their goal? To make "the company the nation's leading, healthier, fast-casual foods company."

It's an audacious statement for a company that at the time lacked a storefront, product or customer. But the Lecontes did their homework.

Annie subscribed to restaurant trade journals, studied the industry and closely followed nutrition trends. She applied the principles she learned in MBA courses, particularly those of marketing and brand positioning. And she worked on her recipes, tweaking them to fit a healthy, fastcasual venue.

Eric took a different route. He detoured from his academic concentration in finance—as a student he interned with Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch—and threw himself headlong into the restaurant industry.

"Graduating college and getting a job at Panera Bread is not the usual path to go, but that's what I did," he said.

Panera is a leader in the fast-casual restaurant market—along with Cosi, Corner Bakery and Au Bon Pain—and a Litestars competitor. Eric gained valuable insights during his year working for the competition.

By 2008, the Erandis team had done its due diligence and developed a business plan, menu and brand. But the most difficult aspect proved to be finding the right location.

"It took us almost two years to find the right space. That was the longest part of the journey," Eric recalled. "After a year and a half of not being able to land something it's easy to give up and move on, but it taught me to be patient.""It took us almost two years to find the right space. That was the longest part of the journey," Eric recalled. "After a year and a half of not being able to land something it's easy to give up and move on, but it taught me to be patient."

Finally, the Lecontes found the right venue on 21st and L streets in downtown D.C., just blocks from GWSB. Litestars welcomed its first patrons in late October 2010.

"We had a soft opening, no advertising, no marketing, we just opened the doors," Eric said.

Relying solely on foot traffic, Litestars started slowly, but business began to pick up as word spread and some advertising began in early 2011. Annie also sought advice from a few of her old GWSB professors, including Senior Associate Dean Pradeep Rau and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs Lawrence Singleton.

"I remember Annie as a very dedicated and mature student," said Rau. "She seems to have her heart in this venture so I wish her the best."

Singleton said Leconte contacted him when she found herself encountering red tape. "Annie's a go-getter. She was a dedicated student—always the one who examined things, went a step further in class—and that determination will pay off in her business," Singleton said. "I am always pleased to try help alumni like Annie any way I can."

The Lecontes aim to differentiate their restaurant from other fast-casual establishments by focusing on healthy, fresh foods and unique menu items, including tartlets and "soupdrinks."

Litestars serves 10 different types of tartlets, from the vegan options of tomato and ratatouille to bison (Annie's favorite) and salmon. Soupdrinks are liquid with all the nutrition of a meal, served in a cup for the on-the-go consumer.

Annie prides herself on the freshness of all Litestars' ingredients. Produce is delivered to the restaurant twice a week and no frozen or canned fruits or vegetables are used. The Lecontes believe natural, fresh ingredients are required to produce tasty, nutritious food. They are confident that there is a burgeoning market for this type of fare.

All in the Family

Annie and Didier each founded and managed retail businesses in France and their success as entrepreneurs there put them in an enviable position: They were able to use their own funds to get Litestars off the ground. While this gave them more control, a family owned and operated business is not without challenges. One practice they adopted is to compartmentalize the areas of the business that they each manage.

Didier oversees operations, finance and facilities. Annie manages the concept, the product and the image. Eric handles day-to-day operations and social media engagement; he also supports the finance and real estate work. "For me, it's good because I get to learn the operation on my own but have my parents behind me," said Eric. "I know them so well and they know me even better, so sometimes it can be a little tense. But overall it's definitely a great experience."

Not yet a year into the Litestars venture, the Lecontes are sanguine about the prospects for the bistro but recognize that growth is necessary. At the moment, the business depends on lunch traffic, which accounts for approximately 65 percent of Litestars' sales. Dinner brings in 20 percent and breakfast another 15 percent. The average ticket for lunch and dinner is $8.50, while the average breakfast sale is $5.50.

The Lecontes said they need to add catering—which can nearly triple a restaurant's sales—and work on weekends and dinners.

Eric is considering keeping Litestars open one hour later to increase dinner traffic. "Right now we close at 8 p.m.," he explained. "It's a mental block for most people who eat around 7 or 7:30. Knowing that we close at 8 they will not come in."

If sales continue to rise and the healthy, fast-casual niche gains traction, the Lecontes later hope to expand the number of Litestars venues. "The goal for us to prove the concept and then to find investors," Annie said.

But for now, what started with family will remain all in the family. GW

To learn more about Litestars, visit www.litestars.com.