INSIDE PIZZA EXPRESS: The secrets of how one chain has stayed at the top for so long

In a casual dining market where brands can quickly find themselves overtaken by new concepts and ideas before they know it, Pizza Express’ status as one of the long-term leaders of the sector is nothing short of remarkable.

This year is its 53rd in business and while it has had to stay fresh and innovate over the years, it has never strayed too far from the ‘dough balls and pizza’ philosophy that have always underpinned it.

It all started with Peter Boizot, who opened his first restaurant in Soho’s Wardour Street back in 1965. His vision is the reason that such a vibrant market place exists today, insists the chain’s current UK managing director Zoe Bowley, who was speaking recently at the Casual Dining Show.

“I am really proud that [The Guardian’s restaurant critic] Jay Rayner once said, ‘Pizza Express defined casual dining’, and that gives me and my team a huge responsibility to maintain the vision that Peter created and make it relevant in today’s market. Peter had a point of view, and he had an authority, and when he opened his first restaurant I don’t think anyone, not even himself, could have realised where this brand was going to go.”

Boizot was a true pioneer of his time. Back in the sixties he brought pizza chefs back from Italy and dealt with suppliers personally; indeed, Pizza Expresses still uses some of those original suppliers today. He even recognised the importance of using authentic equipment and regarded it as an integral part of the business.

“He knocked down walls in restaurants to bring the right pizza oven back to this country to create the right handcrafted unique pizza,” reflects Bowley. “And he had such a spirit of generosity. He is the reason that Pizza Express has got the heritage that it has got, he created the legacy and from this one restaurant on Wardour Street he created a formidable brand.”

Pizza Express today operates 600 restaurants worldwide, with 475 units in the UK and Ireland, where it employs 11,000 staff. The Sveba Dahlen ovens that spearhead its kitchen operations serve up a staggering 21 million pizzas and 40 million dough balls a year.

Zoe Bowley has been with Pizza Express for eight years and currently runs its UK and Ireland operations.

Under the ownership of Chinese private equity firm Hony Capital, which brought the chain four years, it has evolved into a global restaurant giant.

Back when Boizot began opening the first restaurants, the qualities that made it special were ingeniously straightforward. At the time, the British public wasn’t overly familiar with authentic Italian pizza but Pizza Express won them over with its pride, passion and differentiated service. Music, particularly jazz, was a major part of the experience and an aspect of the DNA that is still very much evident today. His branches quickly became known for their sociability, places where memories were made.

Says Bowley: “This was a very simple model that could be easily scaled and it was a unique set of pizzerias that became a worldwide brand. However, there is a warning, and the warning is you cannot confuse heritage with habit. We can’t confuse the heritage that was important — and the things in the heritage that are very important never to let go of — with the habits that may not be as relevant in today’s market. That relevance gives you the edge that you need to compete in today’s market.

“We can’t repeat the same behaviour and expect the same outcomes and we absolutely cannot rest on our laurels. The sector has moved on and everyone has upped their game and there are some really incredible operators out there, and some of them have given Pizza Express a run for their money. I am the first to go out there and look at new competition and really give a nod to some of the innovation and the new things I’ve seen and I think that’s really critical for our industry, it keeps it exciting and it keeps it alive.”

He knocked down walls in restaurants to bring the right pizza oven back to this country to create the right handcrafted unique pizza”

Bowley spent a decade with Whitbread before joining Pizza Express eight years ago and one of the things she quickly learnt upon joining the chain is that residual fondness doesn’t guarantee you fondness in the future if you’re not relevant. She acknowledges that no matter how big a brand becomes, it can never become arrogant enough not to listen.

“In the last six to 12 months we have really paused and reflected and we have listened to hundreds and thousands of customers — customers who use us but probably more importantly customers who we would term as ‘lapsed’; they don’t use us as frequently or they have maybe stopped using us. And we have also listened to our teams, and it has caused us to stop and think about what we have to do to make ourselves as critical in the future as we have been in the past.”

It is also important to know who you are listening to. By 2025 a third of the working population will be Gen X, a third will be Gen Y and a third will be Gen Z. So while Pizza Express is eager to know what its consumers of today have to say, it is equally focused on getting into the minds of the consumers of tomorrow.

“We have even engaged some special brand agencies who are helping us understand Gen Alpha, who were born after 2010,” reveals Bowley. “Some of these are already eight-years-old, they are already using our restaurants, they already have an opinion and they are absolutely digital natives at that age. So these guys are the ones we have to start thinking about while also making sure we are relevant for today.”

There is no escaping the cost challenges facing the casual dining sector right now. Bowley has watched on as some of the chain’s biggest rivals have restructured their businesses in an effort to survive, and she acknowledges that Pizza Express has cost streams and working efficiencies it needs to work through like everybody else. But her philosophy is to focus more on opportunities than threats, and in a nutshell that comes down to way it inspires its teams to thrive and grow.

“All of my counterparts in the industry say that you have got to start with people, but you really have to have a strong foundation and a strong platform and be prepared to invest if you are going to truly put people first. For us, this starts with what we are calling our ‘People Deal’ — what do people expect when they work for us and what do we expect from them? And that People Deal is terminology that’s now living on in the business. We are laser-focused about eight key components that we believe will start to change the face of hospitality, and these eight work-streams have very tangible actions and deliverables around them. These are things that are grounded in reality because our teams told us they want to see them.”

Some of those areas are linked to heritage. Peter Boizot was famous for giving every single team member a hamper at Christmas. Pizza Express has 11,000 employees today, but last year a personalised gift went out to all of them. Team members have access to 12 different qualifications, all the way up to degree level, and because of the global spread of the business they have got opportunities to work abroad in many different countries.

“This has always been a business where people can grow, from the potwash who became the regional director, or the waitress who became the HR director,” says Bowley. “Last month we took 50 of our senior leaders through a senior leadership programme and we are actually intending to take every single line manager, including all our restaurant managers, through a leadership programme because we believe we have to cultivate the talent in our business to enable them to grow.

Pizza Express now operate 475 restaurants in the UK and Ireland, and employs more than 11,000 staff.

We are a people business, we are in the hospitality business, and our people are our brand. Therefore if we don’t commit to delivering for them, we won’t deliver on our brand. And we know that with an engaged workforce we can actually make people fall back in love with Pizza Express. In fact for the last six months, we have turned the dial and we have seen decreasing staff turnover. We know that more people are staying with us and we know more want to join us, and we know that is because of the foundations we have laid in really transforming how we deal with our people. As a result we have also focused back onto the customer with more engaged workforce. We have started to listen to their needs and before you can think about moving onto the innovation and the shiny new toys, you have got to get your fundamentals right in this industry.”

Bowley says there were some clear trends to emerge from its consumer studies. Customers want to feel really cared about when they walk into their restaurant, they want their bill when they ask for it and they want to pay in the way that suits them, and when they ask for an ‘American Hot’, it needs to taste the way it should every single time.

“We have really focused in on these areas across the operations team and with our support teams, and we have seen the improvement — satisfaction is up 13%. We have moved the dial on areas that we knew made a difference to the customers, and this has then given us a platform which we can then innovate and grow our business.”

Future growth will undoubtedly come from upholding the standards that have served it so well up to now, but also through exploring new channels.

Last year it took its pop-up ‘Pizza Express Box’ concept to festivals and events, and Bowley admits the group was “astounded” by the queues it attracted. It transformed the basement of its High Holborn restaurant into a live music venue capable of serving 120 covers and open seven days a week. Its first UK franchise agreement, with Welcome Break, was signed last year and more motorway station sites will be added to the one already open at Oxford Services.

I am the first to go out there and look at new competition and really give a nod to some of the innovation and the new things I’ve seen”

Meanwhile, it now sells more pizzas through supermarkets than it produces in its restaurants. “We know that we have got a huge group of people who eat the supermarket pizza and cook it at home but don’t use the restaurants, and vice-versa. It is a great way to connect, to say ‘you can have a pizza in our restaurant, you can cook it at home or you can have it delivered’, so it is really uniting our channels. And finding new formats to bring our pizza to more people in different ways will be a continued focus.”

The ‘transformation agenda’ that Pizza Express rolled out last year is clearly paying off. It costs money to train, develop and support individuals, but the investment is paying dividends.

“As I said, six months of reduced team turnover, people are noticing it and people are staying — the cost of not doing that is unthinkable. It costs money to attract the best talent and to invest in the technology to really get the deep-rooted insight into customers to be a truly customer-centric business. And it costs money to transform restaurants, refurbish them and create new formats, but again we have seen the contribution to like-for-like sales.

“Simultaneously it would be remiss of me if we didn’t say we have an eye on cost efficiency, but what we are doing is doing it in a really smart way where it doesn’t interact or affect the customer experience. Actually we already have a pretty efficient operating model and we are just building on that. Investment is a balance of giving time, of listening, and it is about investing, even when it may not seem the right time to invest.”

Zoe Bowley speaking at the Casual Dining show, where she revealed the chain has really focused on understanding what matters most for consumers when they visit its stores.

It is clear that Bowley feels a huge responsibility for taking Peter Boizot’s legacy and putting Pizza Express back on the map. She has the benefit of managing a brand that is loved in the UK and committed to innovation. Underpinning it all is a heritage that is worth its weight in gold.

“53 years ago Peter Boizot had a vision — he had fire in his belly, he had a point of view, he brought this industry to life, and 53 years later Pizza Express has stood the test of time and is creating a new and relevant future,” she concludes.

Menu development at Pizza Express

Everybody can cite their favourite Pizza Express pizza — so much so that every week its kitchens cook thousands of legacy pizzas that aren’t currently listed on its menus.

But while the chain knows that some of its oldest creations still generate significant sales, it understands that it can’t sit still. Its menu development teams remain hard at work, coming up with new toppings and combinations that they think will prove a hit with customers and tap into key trends.

Its vegan pizza scooped an industry award — “we waited until we found exactly the right cheese for that one”, says UK managing director Zoe Bowley — while its gluten-free dishes have been accredited by Coeliac UK.

“Health and wellbeing is hugely on the radar for this industry and for consumers, and that is something that we are very committed to.” Seasonally changing menus, incorporating new additions such as Romana Barbecoa and Chocolate Fondant, have also proved popular.

The chain is also innovating by developing an offering around ‘deregulated eating’ — the notion that consumers increasingly prefer to graze, share food and eat smaller, multiple portions.

“We have just launched what we are calling our ‘Piattini’ trial — you will still come in for your favourite pizza but you will be able to share small dishes that are in the spirit of Italian pizzerias, but actually just allow people to eat in a different way. That is trialling currently across 33 of our businesses and the early indications are very strong around how people will come to us for what they want but get a little bit more.

“And what’s important is we always have ‘pizza plus’ in our business. You will always come for your pizza but we will innovate on top of that. It will never be something plus pizza, because pizza leadership is where we have to remain.”

REVEALED: THE ASTONISHING NUMBER OF PIZZAS THAT PIZZA EXPRESS’ KITCHENS COOK A YEAR.

 

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