Pizza Express UK chief: ‘We can’t afford to confuse heritage with habit’

The boss of Pizza Express UK insists “we absolutely cannot rest on our laurels” despite appearing to thrive during what remains an uncertain period for the British casual dining sector.

The high street pizza chain, which was acquired by Chinese investment firm Hony Capital four years, has watched from close quarters as a number of its competitors in the Italian dining sector have financially restructured and consolidated their portfolios.

But it continues to open restaurants and has a further five in the pipeline for 2018 to add to the 475 it already operates. With 11,000 staff and a turnover in excess of £500m the chain has cemented its position as one of the giants of the market.

Zoe Bowley, managing director of Pizza Express UK and Ireland, insists the very values that underpinned the business when it was founded by Peter Boizot in 1965 remain visible in its DNA today. But while it has proven to be a very scalable model that has stood the test of time, there is a constant “warning” that spurs the company on.

“The warning is you cannot confuse heritage with habit,” she explained. “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.”

Bowley spent a decade with Whitbread before joining Pizza Express eight years ago and one of the things that has become most apparent to her since joining the chain is that “residual fondness doesn’t guarantee you fondness in the future if you’re not relevant”.

No matter how big a brand becomes, you can never be arrogant enough not to listen, she insists.

“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 done in the past.”

Zoe Bowley was speaking at the recent Casual Dining Show. Click here to read more of comments in the latest issue of FEJ.

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