You only have to look at the number of pizza concepts springing up in high streets and suburbs around the country to know that it’s one of the most dynamic sectors of the market right now. On the one hand that means both incumbents and new entrants are facing fierce competition, but on the other it demonstrates the level of appetite for new twists on the classic Italian dish.
If you were compiling a list of ‘ones to watch’ in this fast-moving category then MOD Pizza would almost certainly be at the top of it — not least for the fact that it’s got the backing of an executive team with one of the best track records in business.
Scott and Ally Svenson, who founded the brand eight years ago and run its US operation, are best known for starting Seattle Coffee Company, which they later sold to Starbucks. They are also credited with helping to build Carluccio’s in the UK. At the end of last year, the pair felt it was the right time to import MOD to the UK, signing a joint venture agreement with Sir Charles Dunstone, of Carphone Warehouse fame, and his long-standing business partner, Roger Taylor.
“With its compelling combination of superior food quality, value, speed and its culture of leveraging the business as a platform to do good, I believe MOD will translate extremely well across the UK,” Sir Charles declared when the agreement was announced. “As one of the fastest growing food concepts in the US, I see a tremendous opportunity for MOD to disrupt the UK pizza scene with its ‘super fast’ pizza experience.”
The immediate priority for the UK business was to get the right leader in place, which led to the appointment of John Nelson at the start of this year. Nelson (below left) spent 20 years at electronics giant Dixons before joining Nando’s as operations director, where he oversaw strategy execution, team development and new restaurant openings. His time at the Portuguese peri-peri chain coincided with it growing from 89 stores to more than 200. He therefore knows a thing or two about scaling restaurant businesses and the growing pains that come with rapid expansion.
Nelson’s first task when he was pinpointed to lead the UK business was to fly to Seattle, where he spent time with the Svensons getting to know the MOD philosophy. He loved what he saw. “I was blown away by it all,” he tells FEJ. “One of the things that struck me was the ethos of the company — there is genuine emphasis on spreading the MOD culture into new communities by offering great jobs, excellent benefits and career growth opportunities.”
The other aspect that Nelson was taken aback by was the service. “British service has a reputation of not being that great, but in America service is really good — there are elements of what they do in America that we want to bring across from there. The Americans also do fast-casual very well and we think there is a huge gap in the market for that here.”
Ultimately, says Nelson, MOD wants customers to feel happy and uplifted when they visit its restaurants, which is why it takes the hiring of staff — its ‘squads’ as it refers to them — incredibly seriously. Those behind the counter need to have a knack for engaging customers to help deliver a consistent experience across its estate. Its target is for 75% of its restaurant ‘captains’ to eventually become GMs.
The good thing for us is that they have been through the process that we are going through now, so we can learn from their mistakes”
The first MOD store opened this year in Leeds, quickly followed by Brighton. Its Gateshead restaurant began trading last month, while Nottingham and its flagship in London’s Leicester Square are both due to open this month. In terms of store size, the company’s sweet spot is between 2,500 square metres and 4,500 square metres and so far it hasn’t faced any difficulties getting hold of the locations it wants.
Each of its first five sites has been deliberately chosen in a different environment so that MOD can evaluate where the concept works best. Leeds is in the city centre, where it is proving popular with students, Brighton is in a marina location and Gateshead is in a shopping centre. Nottingham will be its first attempt at a leisure park. As far as the future goes, it is planning a further 10 sites in 2017.
The topic of site acquisition is one that remains particularly emotive for restaurant chains in the current climate, with soaring rents and imminent business rates hikes leaving operators fearing profits will be hit.
Nelson is not as worried as some of his larger competitors are likely to be, suggesting MOD is less exposed because of its size. “We are just three sites at this moment in time so it is not an issue for us, but I would imagine that certainly for much larger chains it is a problem,” he says.
The presence of Charles Dunstone, the co-founder and former chairman of mobile phone retailer Carphone Warehouse, in the business has undoubtedly helped to elevate MOD’s profile. Having introduced Five Guys to the UK market three years ago, he has already trodden the kind of path that MOD can expect to go down in the months ahead. And although he is not involved in day-to-day operations, Nelson speaks with him two to three times a week.
“He is a very down-to-earth person, and very insightful. As we go about our journey and explore which direction to take, Charles’ expertise is invaluable. It is the same with Scott [Svenson], who is a great sounding board and provides a lot of operational support. The good thing for us is that the US team have been through the process that we are going through now, so we can learn from their mistakes.”
The MOD Pizza model is unique. Customers can build their own individual, artisan-style pizza or salad using fresh-pressed dough and a choice of 34 toppings. Regardless of how many toppings the customer chooses, the price is always £7.47. “The feedback we have had so far has been fantastic,” says Nelson. “One of the first things we have learned is that you need to give customers time to get used to the concept. When they first come in they tend to put all the ingredients on top and then realise they don’t need to!”
Pizzas are cooked ‘superfast’ in MOD’s gas-fired ovens in around four minutes and Nelson has been instrumental in overseeing the specification of the equipment. Although the kitchen model and equipment lay-out is styled on the US business, MOD had to find its own supplier of ovens for the UK. “The pizza ovens they use in the US are made in California and so it was immediately apparent that the cost of importing and CE approval would make it a challenge for us to use the same ones,” he explains.
As a result, Nelson scoured the market for UK-based suppliers before narrowing the shortlist down to eight companies. He selected Gozney Ovens, a Dorset-based pizza equipment manufacturer specialising in wood-fired, gas and combination stone hearthed ovens. “It was important for me to find someone who knew what they were talking about and could do things at pace given our plans for expansion. When you are a new company in the market you want flexibility from a supplier and Gozney was able to offer that.”
The biggest lesson Nelson learned during his search for the perfect oven was the impact that the type of dough can have on what the equipment serves up. “I had no idea of the complexity of dough!” he laughs. These days he is an expert on the subject. And if MOD’s forthcoming sites receive anything like the reception its first ones have, he has definitely found a winning formula.
Corporate culture has shades of Nando’s about it
MOD Pizza’s UK CEO, John Nelson, believes that when it comes to the company’s philosophy there are similarities with the way in which his former employer Nando’s approached business. When he started with Nando’s he was attracted to the opportunity of being part of a restaurant concept that put a firm emphasis on its people and the broader community.
At MOD, restaurant staff are encouraged to be active in the community, with each site forming strong bonds with local charity partners and community outreach programmes. In Leeds, for instance, it has partnered with local non-profit organisation Breeze, which arranges special city-wide events and bespoke schemes for young people from all backgrounds. Breeze received 100% of the proceeds from pizza sales on the first day that the Leeds store opened.
“One of the things that was immediately clear when I saw the business in the US was the focus on people and giving back,” says Nelson. “We are taking the same attitude in the UK and in the first three months of Leeds opening, the squad did five or six fundraising events.”
Specification: Choosing the right oven
The oven is the heartbeat of MOD’s kitchen, with the chain aiming to cook every pizza from scratch in less than four minutes. It joined forces with Gozney Ovens, based in Christchurch, Dorset, which designed a custom oven for MOD to produce pizza exactly the way it wants.
The MOD team trialled and tested the Gozney oven range before selecting a custom version of the Barbican 1900, currently the largest unit that it provides. “MOD has a really unique offering,” says Tom Gozney, managing director of Gozney Ovens. “Making artisan- style pizzas, on demand, MOD allows customers to assemble their own pizza and salad. Due to their ‘super fast’ concept, they need a reliable oven that has a fast deck recovery time, whilst also meeting their ideal cook time to keep pizzas moving,” he adds.
Gozney’s Barbican 1900 has a 1900mm internal cooking diameter or 15 x 12-inch pizza capacity. It is capable of cooking up to 600 pizzas an hour. The Barbican range, which is available in both freestanding and enclosed formats, is designed as a multi-use oven, capable of cooking a diverse range of large and small dishes, plus high temperature pizza, while running on a choice of wood, gas or a combination of the two.
The ovens combine an authentic stone oven cooking environment with a unique large, elongated entrance for easy access and viewing of the cooking floor. Manufactured in the UK from a high density 100mm thick refractory dome, the Barbican range of ovens is heavily insulated with high grade modern insulators to ensure optimum
The enclosed unit offers operators the option of direct placement within a busy cookline or within an exterior enclosure using a cladding system to create an appliance that meets both functionality and design requirements.