When Jamie Oliver hits the headlines, the nation pays attention. School meals were revolutionised; family dinners were cooked (questionably) in 15 minutes; and now sugary drinks are set to be taxed. Indeed, when it came to the closure of 12 Jamie’s Italians in February this year, the national press and general public hurriedly hopped on the ‘casual dining is dead’ steam train, immediately turning their attention to the sector’s supposed demise.
All of a sudden, family and friends were talking to me about how high street restaurants would survive and what would take their place once they came to their eventual last service. Because if Jamie’s in trouble, everyone is, right? It would have been tempting to play the denial card, highlighting any number of sustainably successful restaurant businesses that are currently going greats guns around the UK (just flick through an issue of this magazine if you need some examples). But the domino effect that followed may have trumped my position. Byron confirmed its troubles, then Prezzo, then Azzurri, then Carluccio’s. The family and friends persisted with their concerned questions about how the industry would ever find its feet, as they fuelled their immediate expertise through the headlines haunting every newspaper in the country. Read all about it: casual dining is done for!
Enter Zoe Bowley (pictured), managing director of PizzaExpress – a casual dining business boss who appears to have avoided this unwelcome attention, quietly eluding the doom and gloom, and aligning her company in order to take on these headwinds. Bowley was the perfect person to speak to last month, as her mantra and methodology complements the very ethos and approach that we adopt at Casual Dining Magazine. I was growing tired of the continued focus on how all branded restaurants were in trouble, but speaking with the PizzaExpress boss allowed for a return to optimism, opportunity and the driving of ideas.
“The casual dining sector is having an interesting time,” she begins. “But PizzaExpress is hugely resilient – it has been around for 53 years, so it has weathered a fair few storms in that time. I guess that’s how we view it. This is another period in time when we have to take a look into the archives and understand what that residual brand fondness is about and how you continually ensure that you have it for the future. It is absolutely not about battening down the hatches and cost control – we’ve created a transformation strategy that has galvanised the whole company. It’s about embracing the challenges in the sector and really focusing on the positives, rather than constantly looking over our shoulder and how we deal with costs. We’ve had to embrace that and it has created a good energy in the business.
“It doesn’t make me feel great seeing these headlines. It’s sad to see the competition struggling or falling by the wayside. I think the danger is to frame the industry as damaged, when actually it needs to be recognised for its contribution. We have 11,000 team members and 472 restaurants, and one of the big things I’m focused on is using our scale to really leverage the positivity of the industry, because we are one of the biggest players. How do we put ourselves positively into the spotlight? I am absolutely passionate about driving this sector back into a great place.”
Three is a magic number
The PizzaExpress transformation strategy is routed in three areas, and while these areas are key and the tactics are clearly paying off, focusing on the following parts of the business really isn’t revolutionary. It’s common sense practice delivered with vigour and proactivity, as opposed to being reactive.
First of all, they are investing in their people through leadership programmes and qualifications. The initiative around people has led to six months of declining team turnover. Next is ensuring the business is customer centric.
“At a time when it feels at odds with spending money, we spent heavily with a brand strategy agency to help us go back and listen to customers,” explains Bowley. “We’re doing a huge piece of work that will land in the second half of this year that will help ensure that the brand remains relevant going forward. In the past 10 years, we may have become a bit functional, but this is about going back to being a much more emotional brand. For example, we did an emotionally engaged campaign over Christmas that had over 9m views – then Christmas outperformed our expectations. The same happened for Mother’s Day – our campaign reached over 1m people and we broke previous records. Becoming more connected with customers is having an impact.”
The third PizzaExpress platform is sustainable growth, with Bowley stressing that while it is important to be laser-focused on profit, cost efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean cost cutting. She remains driven by being an industry pioneer, looking at where new formats may come from and what innovations can be added to the business. Take the relaunch of the PizzaExpress app as an example. Guests can now pay for their meals at the table via their phones, which, in theory, should speed up transactions, add efficiency and create added digital loyalty. Such technological learning is key for Bowley and PizzaExpress, with the MD making no secret of the influence its Chinese franchise operations can have on such operational advancements.
But what about the discounting, Zoe? How do you explain all the discounting? The Telegraph told me that ‘in their vicious fight for survival, restaurants are relying more heavily on vouchers, offering price cuts or free items just to get bums on seats.’ Are you discounting through desperation?
The answer is no. As many will be aware, PizzaExpress has been offering discounts and vouchers to guests for decades, with the business often cited as the only restaurant on the high street that can actually make this approach work successfully over a sustained period of time. However, as Bowley explains, in the past these discounts have been fairly broad in detail – 2 for 1, 30% off, etc. But now, as part of the customer centric element of its transformation, you’re likely to see far more offers tailored to specific consumer groups.
“We’ve always been a key player in the trend towards discounting, but we’re reframing this,” she says. “We’ve got a huge investment in CRM, digital and the social intelligence that allows us to discover what customers are interested in, and really get under the skin of it. Last year, we spent less on discounting than we have in any previous year, so we know that shifting that dial is having an impact.
“There is always going to be a place for how to attract customers using relevant incentives, but it has to be relevant, not a broad-brush approach, which it has been in the industry in the past. We’re using much more intelligent marketing to bring customers what they want as opposed to generic offers. That, for me, is much more of a productive strategy. On a rolling 12-week basis we’re performing ahead of the market. We have to attribute that to some of the campaigns that we’ve put together, which understand and personalise the communication with customers.”
Last year, PizzaExpress sold 21m pizzas and 40m dough balls in its restaurants. Through its retail arm, it sold another 35m pizzas. Some would argue the strength of the brand has never been greater, particularly when you consider the public troubles many of its peers are experiencing (Prezzo’s creditors agreed its CVA proposal as I wrote that sentence).
Despite its transformation developments and considerations, Bowley is keen to stress that PizzaExpress will always be about pizza before anything else. She says this purposefully before talking about the Piattini offer that they’re currently trialling in 33 restaurants around the UK. In short, it’s PizzaExpress does sharing plates, with the business aiming to take away the concept of three course meals. So far, the trial results have been positive, which is a befitting note to end on.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Bowley if she’d like to add anything to the interview. Rather than taint the words of a passionate industry champion with my own over-considered prose, I shall leave you with her unedited, rousing call to the casual dining sector on how positivity should be the first and foremost way in which we express ourselves.
“I want the industry to start thinking positively – it is the hospitality industry and it is a people industry. I’ve been working in it for 25 years and I believe it’s about making sure young people see it as an exciting place to come and work, and that people who are in it want to stay in it. We all need to look for the opportunities. Every business has opportunity – it’s too easy to divert back to the challenges. Of course we’ve got to be cognisant, of course you have to have work streams to offset the costs, but do it in a way that galvanises the operations team. I want the industry to be positive again. It’s hospitality – people will always want to eat out and have a bit of fun, and I think we need to start bringing that back into our businesses.”