Pizza Express recently opened up the doors of its new Global Innovation Centre to members of the press in celebration of its partnership with Veganuary. FEJ editor Andrew Seymour went along to see the facility for himself and meet food and beverage director, Jane Treasure, to understand the role it will play in enhancing the chain’s operations and furthering menu development.
Your new Global Innovation Centre is located just across the road from Pizza Express’ London office. Presumably you’ve not had this kind of dedicated facility up until now?
We are very fortunate to have been bought a new home — it is amazing and we are super lucky. And I think it is one of those spaces where we will look back and think, ‘how did we ever do anything before?’.
So were you having to carry out development work in the actual restaurant kitchens before?
Yes, so it is good that we are no longer having to constantly apologise for big boxes of glassware turning up!
What was the tipping point for deciding to open a facility such as the Global Innovation Centre?
I think there is just a recognition that we needed a focused place to work together. Innovation and development is super important. We have training sessions in there, we have customer focus groups in there — me and my team like to think it is just for us but it is not! And just a recognition that in order to really step up to another gear that kind of space is needed. And for something like an event such as this, it is just so much easier because you aren’t having to close a restaurant for it.
The kitchen in the Global Innovation Centre is divided into two halves — one representing a typical Pizza Express restaurant that a customer would be used to seeing and one resembling a more traditional-style kitchen. What’s the thinking behind that?
I think it is really important that we have a kitchen that we can do traditional cooking styles on and try different things, and then we have the Pizza Express side so that we can look and model, set things up and stress test — we have even got a till system so we can literally run and monitor what happens if I am sitting there with a button going, ‘right, I am a customer, here’s another order and another and another’. We haven’t broken anything yet! And then we have got the bar as well because drinks are a really important part and actually we have probably got more innovation coming through with drinks equipment — there is a lot happening there.
So it’s very much a site that acts as a test-bed and allows you to experiment in what is essentially a real-life environment?
It also allows us to have the space to look at glassware and tables and chairs and design. And we have got systems set up so that we can film — so if we wanted to we could do a live link to the restaurant managers or different countries and train them. It has been future-proofed as much as possible. No two days are the same, though. We have had days this week and last week where we have had a supplier presentation next to a photo shoot, next to burn-offs being run out of the oven to send off for nutritional analysis. It is a really dynamic space.
Is the Global Innovation Centre permanently staffed?
My team are based here. I have a permanent desk [at the HQ] and there are a couple of hotdesks that we have here if some quiet time is needed, but it is open five days a week.
You have to be mindful of the cost of things. When you times something by 500 restaurants you suddenly get to some very big numbers very quickly”
Were you involved in the design of the facility and, if so, what were your priorities initially?
The priority for me was not writing down what I thought — it was making sure I captured what the team wanted because I could see that everyone had lots of views, and then making sure that we delivered on that. I know that sounds really clichéd but it would have been heartbreaking for Antenor, our main development chef on the Pizza Express side, to have walked into the Pizza Express kitchen and gone ‘this doesn’t work for me’, and fortunately that has not happened.
We did have one mad moment — we have got a funny, awkward corridor with a bit of a cut-out, so we put a line of fridges in which made really good use of the space but the doors were put on the wrong way. And because it’s a dead end, to get them open you had to walk further, turn round and open them, whereas actually you just wanted to be able to go in and open them from the other side. It is funny, the little things can make something completely unusable! But the next day they swapped them over and hung them the right way and everyone was happy. That was the only glitch! The other things is we have got lots of plugs — we didn’t want to be fighting over plugs!”
It must be making a massive difference to the daily tasks of your team…
Yes, the pace that you can work is just really quick. My team was happy before but now I go in every day and everyone is even happier. There is a very different vibe to here so it is a much nicer creative space.
It feels like we don’t really hear about operators opening up test kitchens or development kitchens anymore — in fact it’s been the reverse as companies have looked to save costs by using live restaurant kitchens instead. It seems you are bucking the trend.
Yes, definitely. It is the right thing to do. There are lots of bits of kit. It is nice to be able to have something turn up and play around and test it under our own conditions. It is not a secret space, but it is a private space, and you haven’t got competitors coming in.
Menu development is an important aspect of your role. The vegan menu that you are promoting here today was first launched in September. What sort of planning goes into something like that?
We have a cycle of timing for all of our menu changes. We know at the beginning of the year when all our menu changes are going to happen and normally on average we tend to work six to 12 months out. We know that the vegan trend has been growing and we know that it is important to us and our customers. I think it is really important for vegans and vegetarians that they don’t just turn up and get one choice and everyone else gets pages and pages of choice. We have really started to build choice in, and not just in the pizza space but in other parts of the menu as well, so September was a big launch for us that started six to 12 months earlier.
How much science is involved when it comes to putting out a new menu and monitoring how it is performing in the market — are you permanently analysing trends within the restaurants?
Yes. And you are always balancing things up — when do you just go and talk to customers, when do you commission a significant piece of insight, when do you look at your commercial numbers, how much do you listen to your teams? You get a read very quickly from teams. Then there is the information you get from your suppliers to help you horizon-plan and look to the future. Sometimes you do need a dedicated piece of insight to really tease out things that you just couldn’t get elsewhere and sometimes you just need to sit down and talk to people. There is a lot of information and some of it is more useful than others.
When developing new menu items, it is critical that the kitchen teams can assemble them easily and consistently. I wondered what some of the operational challenges around that might be?
One of the things I was most surprised about with our kitchen is how simple is it. You have got the oven, the pizzaiolo and the ingredients. That is it. There are a few knives and a few chopping boards. In some ways when I started I thought that would actually make it harder but it doesn’t. It is a very genuine, simple space. There is not a huge amount of processing — the dough is proved, stretched and topped. You are always looking for new pieces of kit and things that make it easier for the operator, but I think most of the solutions and answers are generally with the operator.
The equipment side of things falls under your remit. What kind of things are you looking for?
I guess what you are looking at is what are you solving for the customer and why? Then how do you approach that back? It might be by looking at a new piece of kit or putting that challenge to the supplier to get it done — it is about working out where you put that complexity in.
If you go to somewhere like Royal Festival Hall they have got two kitchens. Sometimes you just have to build a second kitchen rather than compromise”
Reliability and consistency must be important factors when choosing new equipment given that Pizza Express operates around 500 sites?
Definitely. And also being mindful of the cost of things. When you times by 500 suddenly you get to some very big numbers very quickly, so you have to be responsible with your thoughts.
Volume is another factor. Your biggest site must be capable of hundreds of covers, I presume?
Oh yes, for sure — more, probably. If you go to somewhere like Royal Festival Hall they have got two kitchens. Sometimes you just have to build a second kitchen rather than compromise! And each oven has got three ovens so you can get a lot through them.
Finally, what constitutes innovation for you? And are there any areas of the kitchen at the moment where you are looking to be more innovative?
Innovation doesn’t always have to be immediately customer-facing. I think, particularly in equipment, it can be something that just makes something easier or safer, such as some of the technologies for knowing about shelf life or weights. Innovation is one of those words that can be quite broad. We innovate and we have always innovated. I would love to be able to give you a big long list of what I am looking at but you wouldn’t be allowed out of this room!
Equipped for innovation
Pizza Express’ Global Innovation Centre is based in the heart of Fitzrovia, a two-minute walk from its London office. Members of the chain’s food development team are now based there, with the site providing a dedicated space for meetings, training, events and menu development. The centre is home to a large kitchen and food development test area, including a separate bar area.
The kitchen area is essentially split into two parts. One features a large three-tier Sveba Dahlen oven and adjacent prep space, mirroring the sort of set-up installed within a typical Pizza Express restaurant. Next to that is a separate test area containing a Lainox Naboo combi oven as well as a range of Falcon cooking appliances, such as induction hobs, salamander grill and griddle. Ample refrigerated storage comes from a number of undercounter refrigeration cabinets supplied by Falcon’s sister company Williams.