However, one restaurant group is making a name for itself by going against the grain, and majoring in pizzas more akin to those found in New York than Naples.
Street stall-born Homeslice, which is run by brothers Alan and Mark Wogan and founder Ry Jessup, has three restaurants in London – in Covent Garden, Shoreditch and Fitzrovia – and despite the margherita being one of its top sellers, the rest of the menu is rather less traditional.
Pizza toppings include spiced lamb with savoy cabbage and sumac yoghurt; chorizo with corn and coriander; and XO pig cheek with collard greens and crackling spiked with furikake, a Japanese seasoning powder made with sesame and seaweed. “We are not held to any rules,” says Mark. “What goes on the menu is whatever we are inspired by.”
Homeslice’s decor is far removed from most people’s idea of a traditional pizzeria, too. There’s not a wicker-bound chianti bottle or terracotta tile in sight. Instead, the trio have opted for a mismatched, stripped-back aesthetic with some sites borrowing decorative elements from US diners.
Like its two sibling restaurants, Homeslice’s Fitzrovia site has a wood-fired pizza oven at its heart and a relaxed, urban feel that brings to mind the brand’s street food roots. The pizzas are huge, 20-inch numbers served on wooden boards and, much like the overall brand, stylistically they owe far more to New York than Italy with a medium thick base and a small cornicione.
Not a wicker-bound chianti bottle or terracotta tile in sight: Homeslice’s Fitzrovia site
Each costs £20, although three of the 10 or so listed are offered at £4 a slice, a move that makes the concept accessible to lone diners. The drinks selection is tight, with one lager and one Italian sparkling wine on tap, plus a choice of one red wine, one white and one rosé by the glass (£4), demi-litre (£14) or litre (£28). These are complemented by bottled local craft ales at £5 and a small range of soft drinks.
“We have always ensured we retain the DNA of our street-food roots – the focus and simplicity of it is what appeals to us as restaurant-goers as much as it does as people who run restaurants,” says Mark who, along with his brother, has noted the rise in London concepts with a pared-back but high quality offering that allows more people to eat decent meals at a reasonable price.
The birth of Homeslice
As the sons of the late, great Sir Terry Wogan, Mark and Alan as well as their sister Katherine were, Alan says, used to dining in various restaurant as they grew up. Their mother’s “very good” home cooking had equal, if not more, influence on their respective careers – with all three of them now in the restaurant industry (Katherine, formerly an actress, runs three pub restaurants plus another restaurant with her husband Henry).
Partners in pizza: Homeslice's Alan Wogan, Ry Jessup and Mark Wogan
Mark got into cooking for a living in his late teens, starting – after a course at Leiths School of Food and Wine – as a junior chef at the first ever Carluccio’s. He became head chef at Ebury Group and then set up an outside catering company before becoming executive chef at The Groucho Club in Soho. Appearances on a variety of TV cooking shows followed before he took a job working on media and business development for a number of chefs.
Following an early career as a radio and television newscaster and business journalist for the BBC, Financial Times, Bloomberg and NBC, Alan moved into the business side of the media and still has a few media and creative agency interests. He has previously had shareholdings in the restaurant sector alongside Mark in investment company Longshot, when it owned The Groucho, and several pubs and restaurants in London. He says 99% of his time is now devoted to Homeslice, where he is responsible for the overall business.
Mark too is “totally immersed” in the restaurants now, with a remit to maintain standards and develop the brand. The pair were keen to work together in their own restaurant business. Not only are their individual skills complementary, so too are their personalities – they share a dry sense of humour, recognisable from their dad, coupled with an unspoken but obvious mutual understanding, the kind that can only come from being siblings.
From street stall to permanent home
Mark met Jessup when he was a customer at Flat White, the coffee shop group where Jessup worked. Jessup had hand-built a mobile wood-fired pizza oven and started a street food pizza business that proved so popular at markets and festivals that, a year later in 2012, it secured a residency at Kings Cross Filling Station. He and Mark recognised the opportunity to create a permanent home for Homeslice, which is when Alan also came on board to make it happen.
The trio found a great, semi-off pitch site in Covent Garden’s Neal’s Yard and raised around £200,000 to open the first restaurant, with 45 seats inside and a further six outside, in May 2013.
Just before this, however, Mark and Alan had raised “a lot of money” for an all-day dining concept they were planning to open in Mayfair. Chefs and managers had been employed but the lease was sold to someone else at the 11th hour. They originally planned to run this alongside Homeslice but, despite the disappointment at the time, they are now glad the other restaurant did not come to fruition.
“It allowed us to have the time to react to the speed at which Homeslice got busy and to attend to all the things that needed to be done to control everything and keep standards high in a fast-growing business,” says Alan. The restaurant hit its sixth-month target by week three, with tables turning as much as 10 times a day.
Taking on challenging properties
The average spend per head across the three Homeslices is £13, with 70% of that going on food. The food to drink ratio is a bit higher at Neal’s Yard as dwell time is shorter (meaning people order fewer drinks). Both Fitzrovia, which opened in 2015, and the newest restaurant, which opened shortly after in Shoreditch, have more seating as well as basements that allow greater flexibility and enable the restaurants to offer cocktails.
“We have certainly challenged ourselves with properties,” says Alan. “We opened the third restaurant 12 weeks after the second – it was an ‘interesting’ time. We now feel better prepared in terms of how to approach a refurb and what to spend the budget on.”
Financial constraints also made it necessary for the trio to look at locations that were not of obvious appeal to more established operators. And so far they seem to have demonstrated a flair for pre-empting the increasing popularity of previously off-beat areas, like Neal’s Yard and Fitzrovia.
Less obvious locations: Homeslices' Wells Street site in Fitzrovia
The trio are no doubt hoping this run of form continues as it expands. Homeslice recently exchanged contracts for two new sites. The first, due to open early October, will be an 80-cover restaurant near St Paul’s. The City restaurant will be Homeslice’s first new build and will be close to the likes of Koya Bar, Caravan, Vinoteca and Bleecker Street Burger.
The company’s fifth site, due to open early next year, will be a poignant one for Mark and Alan. The 1,400sq ft restaurant will sit within the redevelopment of BBC Television Centre in White City, a place inextricably linked with their father.
The Wogans’ early Mayfair experience has made them reticent to trumpet any other potential locations until things are at an advanced stage legally. They have looked at sites outside London, but the team says it needs to make sure it has got the head office capacity to support such a move.
For sites to be of interest and to justify the investment required (now around £500,000 per restaurant) in relation to revenue opportunities from the brand’s relatively low price point, the trio say that future Homeslice restaurants need to be a minimum of 1,000sq ft and a maximum of 3,000sq ft. The payback period on their restaurants so far has been between two and three years.
There are opportunities to grow business within the existing sites, which currently serve some 8,000 customers a week and produce net annual revenue well in excess of £4m. Deliveries currently account for 10% of sales but have the potential to grow considerably. Homeslice’s delivery partner, Supper, was chosen not just because it is of a similar age to the pizza business but because its temperature-regulated delivery boxes are large enough for Homeslice’s 20-inch creations.
Homeslice is also looking at various collaborations with other brands to raise the profile of the business. And when the Television Centre restaurant opens, the likelihood that people will make the connection between the brand and the Wogans will increase (so far it has kept its link with the brothers and their famous father on the down-low). Encouraging the TOGs (Terry’s Old Gits) to eat New York-style pizza, however, might be a little harder.
A version of this article first appeared in the June issue of Big Hospitality's sister publication MCA