What: A City-based grab-and-go restaurant focused on pizza by the slice from PizzaExpress. Unlike the word it is taken from, it’s to be pronounced Za-r. It’s the first time PizzaExpress has launched anything new since Reys, a Cambridge chicken concept that - rather embarrassingly for the casual dining giant - failed to get off the ground.
Who: PizzaExpress managing director Zoe Bowley. She describes Za as a move to keep PizzaExpress “relevant in a fast changing market”. With grab-and-go growing at nearly twice the rate as the overall eating out market, it's understandable that she wants to enter the space. Should the model prove successful, the group will expand its new brand through new site acquisitions and may also convert some existing restaurants (although location and size will be prohibitive in most cases). PizzaExpress founder Peter Boizot – who died late last year – offered pizza by the slice when he launched the brand in Soho's Wardour Street way back in 1965, so Za is in some ways a return to the brand’s roots.
The vibe: The setup and aesthetic is PizzaExpress meets Pret with a run of chilled as well as hot products on the left as customers walk-in and a counter directly ahead that runs into an open kitchen on the right. Za is a conversion of an existing PizzaExpress in a near perfect location adjacent to Fenchurch Street Station. The two-storey site is moments from some of the biggest names in grab-and-go - including Pret A Manger, Eat, Leon and Tossed – plus a huddle of tented street food stalls.
The food: Slices of pizza are all £4 bar the Za-gherita (£3.80). The pizzas are considerably larger than those served at regular PizzaExpress restaurants (we’d guess 20”). Going by calories, a single slice at Za is roughly equivalent to one third of a normal PizzaExpress pizza. Pizza is cooked ahead of time in a regular electric pizza oven, sliced and then reheated to order in a small conveyor belt oven before being placed in a triangular box (the whole process took under a minute in our case). But Za isn’t just about pizza. There are a wide range of sandwiches, salads and fruit and dessert pots plus hot wraps and soups. Some are based on existing PizzaExpress menu items, others are not. Alongside a range of packaged soft drinks, Za offers coffee and a range of house-made cold drinks that include nitro matcha chai tea; strawberry and hibiscus lemonade and – perhaps most ambitiously – a nitro gin cocktail (gin, elderflower, lychee, citrus and Seedlip Grove 42).
And another thing: Za is a competent reworking of PizzaExpress for the grab-and-go market. However, the brand has its work cut out: competition is intense and its core product is not at all established in the office lunch market (the perception that it’s not an especially healthy choice when compared to sandwiches, salads and soups won’t help, either). On the plus side, its focus on pizza and close association with a high street restaurant brand puts it on a stronger footing than most of its grab-and-go competitors come the evening.