PizzaExpress at 50: What's next for the chain?

By Mel Flaherty

- Last updated on GMT

PizzaExpress at 50: What's next for the chain?
As the pioneer of casual dining in the UK, PizzaExpress holds a unique position in the nation's hearts. And it is now hoping to pull at its strings.

'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,’ is how Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’ begins. Kipling’s piece of Victorian-era stoicism, written in the form of paternal advice to his son, could easily apply to PizzaExpress today. With the Italian casual dining market currently experiencing a downturn, with some critics blaming over-expansion and a lack of imagination in the sector, and brands including Prezzo, Carluccio’s and Jamie’s Italian feeling the pinch, you’d think that the biggest Italian brand in the UK would be in the eye of the storm.

And yet PizzaExpress, the 53-year-old casual dining market leader, has so far weathered the strong prevailing winds being felt by some of its competitors, according to Zoe Bowley, managing director of PizzaExpress in the UK and Ireland. Moreover, under the new MD the company is now looking to use its size and heritage to cement its market-leading position.

Bowley has been head of the group for six months, having previously spent six years as its operations director. Her responsibility, she says, is ensuring that the legacy of PizzaExpress founder Peter Boizot remains at the heart of the brand while driving growth under Chinese owner Hony Capital in what is quite a mature business. It’s no small task, but her enthusiasm and positivity (both of which are unavoidably infectious) have made her ready for the challenge, she believes.

“I could easily end up running board meetings talking about things we can’t do with GDPR, salt levels, sugar tax and Brexit,” she says. “And leading PizzaExpress now, it would be easy to just batten down the hatches. But positivity breeds positivity.”

PizzaExpress at a glance

Founded: 1965

Number of UK sites: 470

Owner: Hony Capital

Style of food: Pizza and pasta

Since taking the reins at PizzaExpress, Bowley’s focus has been on reigniting the emotional connection between PizzaExpress and both its staff and customers. She says the brand became a bit too functional in recent years.

Later, she talks about how intense it was when Gondola Holdings was selling PizzaExpress to Hony and says that if she was involved in the sale of a business again, she would want to ensure senior management were able to remain more involved in the day-to-day running of it during the whole process. You can’t help but wonder if the two are linked. Either way, Bowley is in the throes of addressing the issue.

New developments

pizzaexpress-wardour-street
The original PizzaExpress in Wardour Street

On the customer-facing side, one of Bowley’s first moves has been the trial of a new piattini menu across 33 selected sites in the west Midlands and south-west London. The range of 14 sharing plates, including buffalo mozzarella and ‘nduja flatbread; lemon and Italian herb chicken wings; garlic prawns; pancetta parcels; and rosemary and buttermilk chicken goujons, is designed to encourage more all-day grazing and extend dining periods beyond lunch and dinner.

There have already been two successful marketing campaigns – one at Christmas, the other for Mother’s Day – both based around people getting together at the restaurants. Both had record views via social media and led to big spikes in sales. Bowley is hopeful for similar results from the upcoming summer campaign.

The reason behind their success, she says, is because they strike a chord with customers, many of whom have memories and feelings based around times they have visited its restaurants over the year. She recently picked up the bill for a family eating at one of the restaurants because she overheard the older son, who had evidently just returned from travelling, saying he had waited a year and couldn’t wait to eat a PizzaExpress Fiorentina pizza. “If only I could have bottled that,” she says.

The company is also investing significantly in its staff, despite the need to implement cost efficiencies. In March, it hosted its first global conference, for 800 people, where, by happy coincidence, it was able to announce the achievement of ‘Superbrands’ status for the first time. Training is available up to a degree level qualification, and by the end of this year every single manager will have been on a two-day leadership course. According to Bowley, this has played a big part in achieving eight months of declining staff turnover – which obviously has good cost implications for the business.

“We are doing a huge piece of work on our brand proposition at the moment and we have got to give our people the context of why we are doing things and take them on the journey,” she explains.

The new approach, which she concedes is more about taking a step back and referencing what made PizzaExpress popular in the first place rather than a radical overhaul, seems to be paying off in other ways. The company recently unveiled a 0.4% increase in UK sales for the year to 1 January 2018, good news after the previous year’s 0.9% drop . Bowley says that on a rolling quarterly basis, the group is performing ahead of the market.

New openings

While there is inevitably some belt tightening going on and acquisitions have deliberately slowed in the UK, under Bowley PizzaExpress remains committed to its rolling programme of about 50 investments a year.

This year, five new UK restaurants were already scheduled to open, including Rushden Lakes, Bromley and a second at the Bluewater shopping centre (the other locations have yet to be revealed), and Bowley says two more have recently come onto the radar, which could happen quickly enough to push that number up to seven.

pizzaexpress-oxford
PizzaExpress at Oxford Services

Following the successful partnership with Welcome Break for the first PizzaExpress at a motorway services area in Oxford​ at the end of last year it has opened a second site at South Mimms services, with a further three restaurants at Fleet, Cobham and Beaconsfield services to follow later this year. The South Mimms restaurant seats 88 diners and opens 11am-10pm 364 days a year.

Bowley says the business is always exploring other formats to drive growth, with travel hubs being the platform she is asked about most. It is something the brand is at the very early stages of exploring and she has an open mind about the potential opportunities, she says, and is always checking out the competition (the night before this interview she had eaten at Gordon Ramsay’s Street Pizza, for example).

Opening under-used space for live music is another strategy the business is looking into further, after the successful launch of PizzaExpress Live in the basement of its High Holborn restaurant, which is now filled seven days a week. There are five dedicated live music spaces within the UK estate, including the original Soho Jazz Club where the link between PizzaExpress and music performance was born in 1976. Around 30 other restaurants in the chain regularly host live singers and players on a Thursday evening and this will be extended to other sites where relevant.

Using technology

Bowley sees further opportunities to differentiate and to grow sales within the chain via technology. Working for a company owned by one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries brings benefits in this field, of course. The company recently launched its PizzaExpress app, which allows customers to pay at the table, and Bowley was shocked that downloads smashed the annual target within the first week, when it was second only to WhatsApp in the free app downloads on App Store.

pizzaexpress-wembley
Open kitchen: chefs at PizzaExpress Wembley

She admits there is still a way to go on customer engagement with it and in getting staff to encourage use of the app, but maintains it will feed into the business’ digital and social strategy, which is undergoing investment . The aim is to help the brand better use its database and make offers, promotions and discounts more targeted and less broad-brush than in the past.

“This is about making it relevant and optimising day parts. We want people to come in not just because they have a voucher.”

PizzaExpress’s marketing is also concentrating on connecting the delivery and grocery customers to the restaurants and vice versa to maximise the benefits to the brand. Investment in those two revenue streams is constant to ensure the end product remains top quality – for instance, new delivery packaging has been introduced to keep pizzas hotter for longer.

These may be regarded as small steps, but they are sensible ones. Under Bowley, the big player in the pizza sector is keeping its head. You can’t say that about everyone at the moment.

This is an edited version of a feature that first appeared in Restaurant’s sister title MCA. Visit www.mca-insight.com​ for more information and to subscribe.

Related topics: Business, Business Profile

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