At a time when rents and premiums have dominated debate in the sector, with the woes of burger brand Byron being blamed partly on such liabilities, Yard Sale Pizza has no such concerns.
The fledgling pizza restaurant and delivery operator, which will later this month open its fourth London venue, in Leytonstone, has built a successful business model around taking on unwanted, and often very cheap sites in underdeveloped but up-and-coming areas, predominantly in and around Hackney, east London.
While the company might balk at the idea of being a force of gentrification, co-founder Johnnie Tate says Yard Sale is happy to take a site that has been neglected and bring it back to life. “There’s something nice about turning round a dilapidated shop,” he says. “But we’re not going into areas to make them look nicer.”
Yard Sale started life in 2014 when Tate, along with co-founder chef Nick Buckland, started making pizza in his garden in Hackney. The pair were joined early on by Dan Spinney and, having had success among friends and family with various weekly supper clubs and feeling that there was a lack of good-quality takeaway pizzas in the area, the trio decided to open their first place, in Clapton, east London.
Expansion has since been modest. In June 2016, Yard Sale opened its second ‘shop’, as the company refers to its sites, in Finsbury Park, north London, followed by a third in Walthamstow, east London, in early 2017 – its biggest site to date and the first to actually have a yard.
With such shops, Yard Sale has been an early arrival into areas that have seen an influx of young professionals seeking a foothold on the property ladder. While Tate admits that there’s a certain amount of risk and nervous anticipation in being one of the first of a new wave of operators, he says the key is in their diligent reconnaissance.
“We spend a huge amount of time looking at areas, seeing who’s eating and drinking there,” he says. “Obviously, it’s terrifying when you open, as you never know, but you have to believe what you’re doing, cover every base and not make silly mistakes.”
The Clapton shop had been empty for six months and was previously “a run-down kebab shop,” he says. “We saw an opportunity because no one else wanted it and we thought we could get it cheap and do it up. In Walthamstow, people were crying out for good food at a decent price, but there wasn’t a huge offering there.
“We are going into areas that are lacking a certain type of offer and trying to give them what they want. That’s part of what we do. We go to places with low or no premiums. When people talk about profit and loss, the rent is quite a big part of that. But, for us, rent is actually quite a small consideration. It’s not the biggest number we look at every month.”
Yard Sales' shops are characterised by being relatively small, which is another factor in keeping its costs down. Clapton has seats for just 18 diners while Finsbury Park is moderately larger with 28 covers. With 30 seats inside and a further 20 outside, its Walthamstow shop is relatively capacious but is still small by comparison to many of its pizza rivals.
Leytonstone will be the second of its shops to have alfresco dining, albeit on a smaller scale, with the site having 25 seats inside and 10 outside.
Fit-out costs are also kept in control with each site having a stripped back, utilitarian feel. Designed by interior designer Fettle, the Leytonstone shop will feature tabletops made from recycled chopping boards, bare concrete floors and a wooden bar as well as school canteen-esque red plastic chairs and wooden stools.
While Yard Sale follows Neapolitan-style techniques, the company is not a slave to tradition, and prides itself on its giant 18-inch pizzas. It isn’t afraid of the odd pun either. Pizzas on its menu include the Harlamb Shake – harissa lamb, guindilla chillies, goats’ cheese and a red onion and mint yoghurt dressing; Cour Blimey – courgette ribbons, pancetta and black pepper; and The Aubergine – garlic roasted aubergines and parmesan crumbs.
Food collaborations ‘or love-ins’ as it calls them, are also an important part of the Yard Sale offer. At Finsbury Park, it has collaborated with Hackney’s Five Points Brewery to create The Mullered Mushroom pizza, made with Portobello and oyster mushrooms braised in Five Points London Smoke porter, pale ale onion chutney, ricotta, fior di latte mozzarella and finished with golden promise malt grain.
Other love-ins include Jack to the Future, a vegan pizza topped with crispy fried jackfruit, chipotle slaw, blue cheese sauce and buffalo sauce that is a tie-up with ‘vegan junk food’ restaurant Biff ’s Jack Shack; a pastrami calzone with Monty’s Deli; the al pastor pizza with Breddos Tacos; and the Nagaland Lamb with Indian street food brand Rola Wala.
Additional menu items include a range of five sauces, three styles of salad and garlic pizza bread, to which cheese and/ or Marmite can be added.
Pizzas are cooked in gas ovens because the trio believe this gives a more consistent cook than with a wood-fired oven and they are cooked slightly longer, with the dough made to a secret recipe, to satisfy the takeaway and delivery element of the business.
“Neapolitan pizza can get very soggy in five minutes,” Tate says. “Domino’s and Pizza Hut have been geared towards delivery – and we don’t want to compare ourselves to them – but we’ve got a product that works for delivery too.
“Our dough is specially engineered to make it hold up a bit. The recipe is top secret but we use stronger flour.”
While many operators have begrudgingly partnered with third parties on delivery, Yard Sale has made managing this logistic a core part of its business. But it is not without its challenges, admits Tate. “It keeps us busy – which is great – but it puts strain on the shops.
“Running it in-house is not easy, but we’re very proud of it – we can offer a better service by keeping it in-house. It’s more cost-effective for us to do it this way – but it’s much more than money. For us, it’s a brand and a business thing that’s part of who we are.”
A flexible approach
The split between dine-in and takeaway/ delivery varies and is commercially sensitive, but Clapton does most deliveries (more than 50%) and the smallest volume of dine-in (it is the smallest site) while larger Walthamstow does the fewest deliveries and the most dine-ins.
The trio is flexible when it comes to site sizes, and say it considers opening both small takeaways and bigger dine-in shops depending on what locations they can find.
Expansion will continue to be steady over the next few years, but Yard Sale believes it can eventually operate shop numbers in the double figures. The group has publicly stated a desire to open 10 shops, and the next few are likely to be in north London, Tate says, before turning its focus south of the river, to places like Brixton and New Cross.
While the dough and tomato sauces are made at each site, much of the preparation work is done at Finsbury Park, and Tate says Yard Sale may look for a bigger prep kitchen as it grows. Cash will also be required at some stage, according to Tate, who is keeping his options open as to where this could come from.
In a market not short of pizza, Yard Sale stands out from its peers. “We see ourselves not as a restaurant, not a takeaway, but an all-in-one little buzzy pizza shop. Our pizza is just as good for takeaway and delivery.”
This article first appeared in the January issue of MCA, for more information and to subscribe to MCA click here.