A large sign is posted on the doorway to Pizza Express’s East London pizzeria, located at Mare Street: “Your marble tables awaits”.
Pizza Express has returned.
The new and renovated restaurants of the chain promise to deliver on the luxury at an affordable price that has made them a favorite among middle-class families for decades.
They’re saying, “We’re going cheap. Simon Stenning, hospitality industry expert, says: “We’re still a great place to be.”
Pizza Express hopes to regain ground on the high street after a long period of painstakingly closing around 100 restaurants.
The chain claims that its financial woes have been resolved. It argues that a painful restructuring in the past few years has put it back on track.
Paula Mackenzie is the former head of KFC UK and Ireland. She took over last year, and she has overseen a revamp of the branches and an expansion.
Hackney, Maidenhead and Cranleigh have all seen new restaurants open. The Mare Street branch opened last November.
Menus have also been updated, and new items such as honey dough balls made with hot water and peach liqueur are exclusive to the chain. Seasonal asparagus is now a new topping for the chain’s pizzas.
Many of our competitors are in decline, while we continue to grow.
Byron Burger was once a darling in the restaurant industry, worth £100m. It now has just 12 restaurants, after having collapsed twice in the past three years. Jamie’s Italian collapsed even before the pandemic. Prezzo announced the closure of 43 restaurants and hundreds of jobs as inflation rose.
The remaining chains are depressed. Andy Hornby, chief executive officer of Wagamama’s owner The Restaurant Group told The Telegraph that he didn’t believe “casual dining restaurants” would ever return to their former glory.
Several of these brands used to be the insurgents who stole a march on Pizza Express.
Pizza Express was founded in London in 1965 by Peter Boizot. An entrepreneur who loved Italian food, he helped popularize pizza in Britain. In 1976, it opened a jazz club in London’s Soho. It was known for offering affordable meals that were upmarket.
Peter Backman, consultant in the restaurant industry, says: “They offered real value. They provided a great experience. And they had aspirational content.”
They were also popular with parents because of their affordability, reliability, and availability. Parents knew that they could feed the children a pizza, while they sipped on wine or Peroni – the first brand to be imported into the UK by the chain.
In the 2000s however, Pizza Express struggled to differentiate itself in a market that had become overcrowded. Ask, Strada Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo and Jamie’s Italian were all competing for space on the high street.
Private equity Cinzen bought Pizza Express in 2007, removing the company from the stock exchange as the demand for mid-tier restaurant grew in the UK.
Backman says that Pizza Express “downgraded” its offering because they were “under pressure to drive volumes”. The chain started to heavily rely on discounts.
Backman says, “They were the leaders in voucher wars.” Download this voucher and go to a Pizza Express for 50% off. It completely destroyed any sense of value.
The restaurant was sold again in 2014. In 2014, the restaurant changed hands again.
The continued proliferation of brands in Britain – Franco Manca’s, Rosa’s Thai and Cote Brasserie to name a few – put more pressure on business.
Stenning says that any brand that is stale will suffer. If it wasn’t current and was burdened with debt, it would start to fall apart.
Pizza Express suffered losses of £350m during 2019 due to its £1.1 billion debt, whose interest cost it £93m per year. Pizza Express had too many restaurants, with around 600 worldwide and 450 in the UK.
The situation reached a boiling point when the first lockdown forced all restaurants to close. In 2020, Hony announced a series of job cuts and closures, as part of a voluntary restructuring. Hony was forced to leave the scene as the company’s lenders took control.
Pizza Express appears to have made it through the worst for the time being. Last September, the company completed its restructuring agreement under a Company Voluntary Arrangement. It has 362 offices today.
A Pizza Express spokesperson insists that the fortunes of the chain have improved dramatically. They stated: “We have a strong position, with good cash management and cost control. The debt levels are now more than half of what they were when the previous owner was in charge.
Pizza Express insists that its prices are still “competitive” despite the fact that, like other businesses, it has been affected by inflation. Pizza Express’ Margherita price has increased from £8.95 to £10.95, still affordable for long-term customers.