Pizza Pilgrims: seven ways expanding restaurant groups can ‘roll out with soul’

By Sophie Witts contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pizza Pilgrims: seven ways expanding restaurant groups can ‘roll out with soul’
Like all the best ideas, Pizza Pilgrims started in a pub. Back in 2012 brothers James and Thom Elliot decided to quit their desk jobs and go on a ‘pilgrimage’ to Italy to learn all they could about pizza.

They returned to the UK to set up a street food van, before opening their first bricks and mortar restaurant in Soho’s Dean Street in 2013, right opposite a PizzaExpress. Now, nearly six years later, the business has grown to nine sites and a presence in crazy golf venue Swingers.

Speaking at Restaurant​ magazine and MCA’s ​recent Generation Next event,​ the brothers shared their tips on getting a restaurant brand started, and how they have strived to ‘roll out with soul’.

1. Street food is a good place to make mistakes

We learnt more in 12 months on our stall than we’ve probably learnt in the subsequent six years. Street food is a really safe place to make some big mistakes. There was no one sitting down and it was a very quick dining experience. In terms of testing stuff on a low budget it’s still the way to do it.

When we started we wanted to ‘reinvent the queue’ using a system based on marbles. We tried this on the first day and lasted an hour until it was complete chaos. Turns out the queue is still good.

2. Create your company ethos early – and stick to it

We just hired our 300th​ person, which seems mental. We try and meet everyone, and they all get an induction. If you’ve got ambition for your business try and lay out early what’s important to you, then you can stick to it. Dishoom do a great thing where they close all their restaurants for a ‘family day’. They’ve done that from day one. If you try and start that four restaurants in with a private equity backer they’re going to tell you to get stuffed.

3. Keep it simple

We make pizza. It turns out other people have done so in the past, too. What we do is simple and we want that to extend that to every part of the business. The staff aren’t filling out endless forms or reporting on a million KPIs that no one is actually looking at, they’ve just got a really direct brief. Our bonus structure is simple, if you hit your budget target you get 10% of every pound you sell above that as a manager.

4. Make it authentically yours


Five to 10 years ago being authentic meant you had to recreate a pizzeria in Naples. We would never have done well with that because we’re obviously not Italian. We try and feature pop culture that’s relevant to us as well as music and video games in our restaurant design instead. It’s about what your version of authentic is; it doesn’t have to be specifically tied to the product.

5. Obsess about quality

It’s obvious, but we want the pizza to be the best it can be. That means a lot of work obsessing about flour types, and the tomatoes you’re using. This year we’ve been to Naples five times. We’ve started taking 20 of our team members there twice a year to meet our flour and mozzarella suppliers. I genuinely think if our menu just sold one margarita pizza and a cold beer we’d still be in business. We focus relentlessly on how to get those two things right.

“Be friends with everyone in your company
 and understand them, know the
 KP as much as your operations director”

6. Stay positive

Restaurants are hard, there are a lot of moving parts and people involved. Machines break and leaks happen. If you don’t stay positive from the start you’re completely scuppered. On our fourth day we forgot to put the yeast in the dough, it didn’t rise at all and it wasn’t really Neapolitan pizza. We managed to spin that into a story about how we’re Chelsea fans and they happened to be playing Napoli that night in the Champions League so we had to make Roman pizza instead. When you’re in start-up mode there are very few issues that have to stay purely a problem, try and make everything a positive.


7. Be humble

Never think you know it all. Be friends with everyone in your company and understand them, know the KP as much as your operations director. If you try and build a hierarchy it doesn’t work. We want all our staff to have an opinion and tell us what they think about their job. Could you do it better, and how?

You see a lot of people who feel they need to launch in to the restaurant industry going, ‘this is the best ever’ and put superlatives in their marketing. I don’t know about you but I want that guy to fail. If you go in too confident people don’t want you to succeed and you’ve got a crosshair on your back from day one, so be humble and let the food and design do the talking. All that shooting from the hip stuff is quite boring.

James and Thom Elliot are the founders of Pizza Pilgrims. They were speaking at Restaurant magazine and MCA's Generation Next initiative, a newly-formed club for the rising stars in the hospitality sector. For more information on how to join Generation Next and attend future events, email wb.jnggne@jeoz.pbz


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