The company, which operates over 600 sites worldwide, is relaunching its Langham Place, Oxford Circus restaurant today (28 March) as a test-bed for its new offer.
The refurbishment includes a more defined bar space for up to 30-covers, and an extended cocktail list featuring a Bloody Mary made using fresh passata.
PizzaExpress is also introducing a ‘leadership programme’ to develop restaurant management teams and has updated its uniforms with input from staff.
This ‘test and learn’ strategy will be rolled out to its upcoming Leeds arena restaurant, opening in April, and will be used to inform future openings and refurbishments.
A changing market
The relaunch is part of a sudden burst of activity for the 54-year-old brand, which is also angling for a cut of the grab-and-go market – an area growing at nearly twice the rate of the overall eating out sector, according to MCA Insight - with the launch of its pizza by-the-slice concept Za in the City.
It follows a year of reckoning for Italian casual dining, with rivals Carluccio’s, Prezzo, and Jamie’s Italian closing 109 sites between them under Company Voluntary Arrangements (CVA).
Speculation has been mounting that PizzaExpress could follow, with the company reporting a pre-tax loss of £28.7m in the year to 31 December 2017, compared to a £15m loss in the 79 weeks to 1 January 2017.
Total operating profit fell 47.1% to £60.6m, while EBITDA dropped from £103.9m to £94.6m.
PizzaExpress says sales had been 'subdued' in the UK and it that had struggled with well-publicised 'cost headwinds' such as rising rents, rates and wage bills.
The group has yet to report its 2018 results, but 2017 figures revealed its total debt was over £1bn, £652m of which is due for repayment by 2022. It previously said the additional £424.6m was a loan is from a parent company, and does not have to be repaid.
Its competitors are also updating their offer. Carluccio’s launched its £10m Fresca refurbishment programme this year, trialling a more formal evening service and relaxing its rigidly Italian menu to include steaks, fish and French wines.
PizzaExpress is also facing competition from more modern rivals such as Azzurri Group, which opened 15 sites and refurbished a further 33 across its ASK Italian, Radio Alice, Coco di Mama and Zizzi brands in the year to July 2018. Group sales rose 8.5% to £279.8m, though EBIDTA was flat at £37m.
Though its redesigned offer is still subject to testing, PizzaExpress’ managing director Zoe Bowley says the changes are based on consumer and market research undertaken to 'understand the critical elements' required to ‘future-proof’ the business.