February 2020 was a big month for PizzaLuxe. “We’d literally just completed an investment deal with Edition Capital for £1.5m,” recalls founder Paul Goodale, who launched the fast-casual pizza brand in Leeds back in 2013. “Things were going really well. We had two sites at the time [in Trinity Kitchen, Leeds; and Terminal One at Manchester Airport] and had just announced plans to open a third in Manchester’s Arndale shopping centre. Back then, we just didn’t know what was coming.”
Of course, we all now know what happened next. Within a month, Covid-19 had plunged the country into lockdown. The sector shut down, restaurants were closed indefinitely, and everyone held their breath.
Goodale is frank about how difficult the early days of the pandemic were. PizzaLuxe’s expansion plans were put on ice, and the business went into survival mode. Both sites closed initially, but the Trinity Kitchen one soon reopened for delivery and, impressively, has traded continuously ever since; even during subsequent lockdowns.
“If you’re small business and shut, you don’t have a business,” continues Goodale. “A lot of our staff wanted to come back, so we reopened as soon as we could and brought back as many staff off furlough as possible.”
The Manchester Airport site, which operates under franchise through SSP, will remain shut until the new year (“the pandemic hasn’t exactly been the kindest to air travel hubs”) but Goodale’s focus has nonetheless returned to the expansion trail. In July this year, PizzaLuxe finally opened its Manchester Arndale flagship, occupying a 2,000sq ft corner plot on the lower level of the shopping centre’s recently refurbished Halle Place dining quarter. And now, two further full-service restaurants are being added to the brand’s portfolio thanks to a new partnership with Extra Motorway Service Area Group.
Marking its first venture into the motorway service station space, PizzaLuxe will open within the Extra in Peterborough on 22 November. Next month it will launch a second at Extra’s Cambridge site. “The Edition Capital investment was always meant to grow the company within the travel and franchise channels. It’s taken longer than we’d hoped to get the ball rolling, but we’re finally pushing ahead and growing the business.”
Shifting the stigma around travel hubs
PizzaLuxe is positioned as being an attempt to ‘shift the stigma’ around what restaurants in the travel space can offer, with Goodale, a former director of restaurants at Harrods, developing the concept in response to having spent a lot of time travelling through airports. As a frequent flyer to Qatar he says he found himself constantly thinking about where one can eat in an airport beyond fast food and grab-and-go sandwiches if they haven’t access to a lounge.
“That’s when I began formulating the idea for PizzaLuxe in my head. Pizza is omnipresent, and I just thought, ‘why can’t you make things better in an environment where it’s in short supply?’. We’re not doing Michelin cooking, but what we serve is fresh and tasty. It’s food made with consideration in a welcoming environment by well-trained staff.”
“We want to create something that’s great
and that happens to be in the travel space.
We have customers, not hostages”
Despite Goodale saying feedback at the Trinity Leeds site was always positive, it took until 2018 for it to establish a second location, this time in an airport environment. That’s when things really begun to take off, so to speak.
“The success of the Manchester Airport site felt like a validation,” he explains. “SSP had approached us to do a franchise deal and move the brand into travel, which is what I was always aiming to do with it. It was a hit. Customers responded well to it. The airport was happy, and SSP loved it.”
Speed is of the essence
In keeping with the fast-paced nature of travel and retail hubs, the PizzaLuxe menu has been designed with speed in mind. Rather than use the Neapolitan approach favoured by many of today’s chain pizzerias, PizzaLuxe opts for a ‘Roman-style’ method with a super-thin sourdough base topped with a cooked tomato sauce.
The dough itself is made using organic flour milled at Shipton Mill in Hampshire, olive oil and water, and undergoes a 96-hour slow prove before being pressed – rather than hand spun. It is cooked in an electric stone-deck oven - a decision made by Goodale when he first designed the concept to ensure its suitability for the travel space, where naked flames in the kitchen is usually forbidden.
“From the moment a customer orders, it should take 90 second to prepare the pizza, and another 90 seconds to cook it… at least on a good day,” caveats Goodale, with a smile. “I’ve done a lot of product and concept development in my career, which helped when developing PizzaLuxe.
“What I’ve always been conscious of is not to be saying that we’re creating something that is good enough, but to create something that’s great and that happens to be in the travel space. We have customers, not hostages.”
Toppings on the PizzaLuxe menu include a range of classic options including margherita; four cheeses; pepperoni; and mushroom. While the more eclectic ‘secrets’ menu features bacon, brie and baby spinach; roasted aubergine with sun-dried tomato, red onion, peppers, mushroom and feta; oven-baked ham hock and cayenne-roasted pineapple; and chorizo with goat’s cheese, roasted grapes and honey. Pizzas come in either 10” or 13” sizes, and prices primarily range between £5 and £7 for the smaller option, and £8 to £10 for a bigger one.
While the core menu remains the same across the PizzaLuxe estate, each site is also tailored to its location. In Manchester Airport, for example, a full breakfast pizza is served with a tomato sauce base, mozzarella, mixed herbs, mushroom, bacon, sausage, egg and ‘breakfast sauce’. The Arndale restaurant, meanwhile, serves coffee and cake in the afternoons.
Then there’s the two new Extra sites, both of which have taken on former Ed's Easy Diner units. “We’ve kept our design spec for both those restaurants, but we have tried to incorporate some of the Americana look leftover from Ed’s. It’s maybe not something we’ll carry through as we grow, unless it really works, but it’s suited to those service station locations. As we have more space, we’ve also broadened the menu at those sites and introduced a few burger options.”
With all venue open until well into the evening, Goodale is also pushing PizzaLuxe as a late-night bar option; although, understandably, not at either of the new Extra restaurants. As well as a selection of wines, all sites serve a range of made-to-order cocktails priced at £8 each including an espresso martini; a rosemary greyhound; and a lavender and thyme Collins. “Having a strong cocktail offering means we can appeal to a broader demographic. Both the Arndale and Trinity sites are located next to hotels, and that gives us a lot of footfall in the evening.”
Goodale is clear of his plans to grow PizzaLuxe nationally. “We want to build out an estate that can sustain and support a larger franchise business. I believe we can get to 50 sites in total over the next three years, with 10 company-owned locations and 40 operating under franchise.”
Retail settings similar to the Arndale site will be considered, but the bulk of the expansion will be concentrated in the travel space, with Goodale showing no appetite to move the business onto the high street. Airport growth is a fundamental part of the plan, but under the deal with SSP there are plans to move into train station locations, with a streamlined PizzaLuxe concept already approved by Network Rail.
Additionally, should the sites in Peterborough and Cambridge go down well, there’s further scope to broaden the partnership with Extra.
In terms of location, Goodale is keen to franchise across the UK, with sites in London currently being looked at and plans to expand to Scotland also in discussion. For company-owned sites, his focus will remain on the North. “Ideally we want to go to five northern cities and have two restaurants in each one. I’m based up there, it’s my home and I want to be able to visit all the restaurants we own regularly.”
Centralising production of PizzaLuxe’s dough has been a crucial step in preparing the business for growth. In the early years everything was prepared in house but, given the complexity of some of the recipes, it was not something it thought it could maintain for a franchise model. As a result, the company now has a bakery business that prepares all of its dough.
The same steps have been taken with the small-batch tomato sauce, which is prepared offsite to PizzaLuxe’s own secret recipe. “Centralising the production has allowed us to ensure the quality and consistency of our core product remains high as we scale, and it also means that our teams are able to focus more on our guests, which allows for a better customer experience.
“We’ve been busy during lockdown, and it feels like now we’re really in the right position to go big.”