Useful naivety

Useful naivety

James Elliot, who co-founded Pizza Pilgrims with his brother Thom five years ago, talks about the “useful naivety” that the two of them have utilised over the past half a decade. By not having 20 years of operations under their belts, the duo have been able to create a restaurant business that embodies the true foundations of the casual dining industry. From specials and Swingers (it’s a crazy golf course) to market expansion and Mario Kart, this is the Pizza Pilgrims story so far…

“You’ve caught me at a crucial point of my day,” says James Elliot, one half of Pizza Pilgrims, as I make my way down the stairs of its Kingly Street restaurant in Soho. “I’m trying to find the green.”

Money? Basil, perhaps? He is hunched over a table in the downstairs area of the pizzeria, firmly fixed on whatever is spread out on the surface below his gaze. As he leans back to say hello, James reveals a thick Dulux colour chart booklet, opened on a page filled with various shades of green.

“I never know which green is ours,” he laughs. “Look around you. Look how many different greens there are.”

He’s right, and it’s something I’ve not noticed before. From the restaurant frontage to the trim on the menu, there is a subtle inconsistency with the colour of which they’re becoming more recognised from. There are now six permanent pizzerias dotted around London that can be easily spotted when in the surrounding areas, thanks to the vibrancy of the exterior colours. Are all the restaurants painted precisely the same green? Do James and his brother Thom know the answer to this? More importantly, do they care? This introductory anecdote at the beginning of my time with the Pizza Pilgrims founders acts as a humble metaphor for how the entire business is run. There’s an individuality to the overall operation that flows through each of the six sites, as well as the permanent pop-up housed in East London’s crazy golf course, Swingers. Over the past five years, the brothers’ unique approach to creating and maintaining their beloved brand has resulted in a small chain of restaurants renowned for so many reasons by so many people.

“Every time an opportunity comes along, it would be easy to say, ‘That’s not what we do. We do 2,000 sq ft restaurants in busy areas’,” says Thom. “We’ve either got short attention spans, or just have a bit more interest in pushing different things. We always get asked what we’re looking for by property agents, but to be honest, Swingers and West India Quay do not fall into the model of what Pizza Pilgrims is. They’re complete opposites. We’re keen to take on those opportunities as they present themselves.”

West India Quay is Pizza Pilgrims’ latest site. The space is far bigger than the business is used to, and is located in an area that, they admit, initially put them off. They never saw Pizza Pilgrims as a City brand. However, after visiting the area and seeing just how many casual dining restaurants were being drawn there, ideas on how to utilise the large space started to materialise. There’s an outside terrace, bocce ball, pinball machines and even a Mario Kart booth. It’s no wonder that they’ve deemed it their ‘pizza playground’.

Behind the scenes

The considered description James gives about a restaurant business is quite possibly the most distinctive I’ve heard in a very long while. When discussing the team of people that make up the Pizza Pilgrims head office, the brothers are quick to highlight the essential group of individuals that make the business what it is. The point they enforce is that everything needs to be controlled, calm and considered behind the scenes in order for the freedom of the pizzeria experience to truly flourish. Or, as James puts it:

“It’s the reverse mullet,” he laughs, gesturing to his hair. “A mullet is about having the business up front and the party at the back. Here, the business switches around. You’ve got to have all your shit together at the back, so up front can be a party.”

I can only imagine that such an analogy didn’t come from the Pizza Pilgrims chairman, Rupert Clevely. An investor from the beginning, Clevely, who is famous for founding Geronimo Inns, is actually godfather to James. While he has been a very influential figure in the company, the brothers maintain that Clevely has also been keen to step back and watch how things play out under the guidance of his close family friends.

“He lets us run the business and is very good at flagging things up,” says James. “He has been interested in watching us do it in a different way. We talk about having this useful naivety – not having 12 or 15 years of experience in a business can work in your favour and you see things in a fresh way, like company culture and how we interact with our employees. If we’d come through 20 years in the industry, we might take a more traditional approach.”

They explain how a decision to take away all coffee except espressos was one that Clevely tried to warn them about – “milky coffee is where the growth is,” he told the protégés. However, the duo chose to ignore this one piece of advice from their mentor and saw coffee sales increase and dwell time decrease. Useful naivety – one, veteran experience – nil. While coffee sales are a smaller detail, one operational tweak can make all the difference to the long-term success of a restaurant business. Thom is quick to offer one example where some learned guidance from their chairman set the Pizza Pilgrims business up for years to come, from the outset.

“We would’ve not bothered with a proper finance team in the early days, but listening to Rupert on that was the best thing we ever did,” he says.

The sensible advice of hiring someone specifically for finance was heard loud and clear, but the method in which James and Thom found Sophie Gilchriest, their head of finance, was maybe a little unorthodox, considering the seriousness of the role. What did they do? They tweeted. They asked their 20,000+ followers if anyone was interested in the position. Sure enough, Gilchriest, a loyal customer and follower of the business, responded.

“The great thing about that is that she was a customer of ours,” says Thom. “Sophie can voice her opinion on all sorts of things, as she knows the business. She walked in knowing about the restaurant scene.”

“We have a great team around us and it’s growing now,” adds James. “We have Mike Dench, our ops director, and Tom Mullin, our head chef. Seeing them massively step up and take on full responsibility of their parts of the business has been really exciting. Then there’s Sophie, our finance director, of course.”

A slice of the market

Around the time that I went to see the Pilgrim brothers, Charlotte Mellor, features editor of Casual Dining Magazine, posted a timely picture on Instagram. It was an image of a Mother London pizza, with a strapline reading: ‘Another day, another #pizzeria announcement’. She had a point. Our news desk has seen a number of pizza-related press releases arrive over the past few months, let alone years. It’s a busy market. Indeed, while Thom talks of the difficulty of selling decent coffee when you’re surrounded by specialist coffee bars, James adds that it’s “even more difficult than pizza”. So what of their competition? The pizza market is in danger of becoming a little saturated, but the quality of the product is continually held up. Does that worry them?

“You can overthink these things,” says James. “If you’re good, it works. People know good pizza when they have it. You need to be the full package of pizza and experience, and the person that serves you needs to be happy too. Competition is a great motivator, and who knows what the next 10 years hold, but the pizza world is a nice world – we’re mates with Homeslice, Voodoo Rays, Made of Dough, etc. We all get on really well. It’s a big celebration of pizza.”

“If you spend the whole time looking over your shoulder at what your competitors are doing, you’re going to lose track,” adds Thom. “Do what you think is best and hope that it’s better than everyone else.”

I wouldn’t say that they spend their time looking over their shoulder, but the Elliot brothers clearly know what’s happening in their market – they’d be daft not to keep track. While they might be friends with some of their competing restaurateurs, remaining aware of the arrival of new brands and the expansion of existing outlets is all part of the job. Big, powerful chains have arrived from the US, and brands with the support of hefty private equity are on every other London street. Pizza, as they say, is where it’s at. Evidently, the Elliots know where they’re at in this happening scene, but do they know where they’re going? Do they aspire to keep up with the pace and power of the Franco Mancas of this world? Is being courted by private equity firms appealing?

“We fell for that for a bit,” says James. “It is appealing – sites come up and you get offered investment. But private equity wasn’t for us – it wasn’t a good fit. Companies that are our size and our age are often courted on and it’s a slippery slope to fall down. You can end up not owning any of your own business and you’re a pawn in a machine. Over-expanding too fast is the kryptonite of the restaurant business – you can’t build a culture that way. No one knows each other in the company and it’s a hollow business, unless you’re brilliant.”

“People always ask us what our exit strategy is,” adds Thom. “But we’re just getting started! How could we have an exit strategy? Every opening is completely different, and that brings new problems to learn from and then the solution is implemented across all of the sites. If we were opening faster than we are, we wouldn’t be learning – we’d be scrabbling for the next thing.”

Culture club

What’s clear throughout the entirety of the interview is that these young restaurateurs are obsessed with maintaining the values of their business. I first met them just before they opened their second restaurant – the site on Kingly Street, Soho, where this conversation took place. There was an exuberance about them then that hasn’t faded in the slightest – they laugh and joke with their employees, and go above and beyond with added initiatives that create the foundations of the Pizza Pilgrim family.

For example, they’ve started an arts grant, where an employee can receive £1,000 to pursue their own individual dream. The recent grant has seen a couple of the team take their own play to the Edinburgh Fringe. With the help of Mullin, they’ve started a Pizza Pilgrims football team. Dench runs a Pizza Pilgrims open mic night (don’t ask Thom how his Bob Dylan tribute went). There’s Pizza Pilgrim Olympics. You get the idea.

“We create something that’s not just about the job – it’s about people expressing what they’re really about,” explains Thom. “We employ so many people who are into their arts. A new waiter who just joined could be an incredible guitar player – they’re not just waiters. If these people have 10 mates who are in a similar position and looking for work, they’re going to recommend coming to work here. We have an interview question – ‘What’s your favourite film?’ You can see someone’s personality from that question depending on how they answer.”

True to form, the brothers spend the next 10 minutes talking about their favourite films. I don’t think they were trying to prove the power of their go-to interview question, but it certainly gets a conversation flowing. The young, enthusiastic individuals (there are almost 200 now) that make up the teams at each pizzeria are no accident – they are all people suited to the culture that Thom and James have been creating over the past five years. As James says, “the person that serves you needs to be happy.”

So what about the next five years? They’re currently running seven restaurants, will there be 14 by the time 2022 rolls around?

“I’d want 14 great pizzerias, not 12 with two shit ones,” says Thom. “We have ambition and that grows, but there’s no rush. We’re plodding along. We now have seven restaurants, and every single one of those is managed by someone who started on the floor at Pizza Pilgrims. It is so rewarding that they’ve been through the company and are now bringing that DNA to the new site. If you grow faster than we are now, you have to be losing that.”

“We know what the business looks like until half way through next year,” adds James. “It’s two more from now until then. Oxford is signed up – at the end of October we’re going to Westgate. We’re looking at sites for the first half of next year. In five years, I want to still be enjoying it, loving the challenge and loving the next step, and having a team of people who enjoy it. It’s a fricking cliché, but it’s true.”