Upper crust

In 1965 Peter Boizot started selling 10p slices of pizza. Today the company he created is worth £800m. Stuart Husband reveals how Pizza Express got cool Britain hooked on American Hot
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you've ventured out for pizza at any time in the past 40 years, the chances are that you've ended up with a Margherita or an American Hot at your local Pizza Express. You'll have given the familiar menu the most cursory of glances; you'll have subliminally imbibed the ambience - cool, informal, with a hint of jazzy bebop chic; you'll have probably greeted the long-serving manager or head waiter like an old friend. In short, you'll have treated it as an extension of your front room. It seems that Pizza Express has been around forever.

If you've ventured out for pizza at any time in the past 40 years, the chances are that you've ended up with a Margherita or an American Hot at your local Pizza Express. You'll have given the familiar menu the most cursory of glances; you'll have subliminally imbibed the ambience - cool, informal, with a hint of jazzy bebop chic; you'll have probably greeted the long-serving manager or head waiter like an old friend. In short, you'll have treated it as an extension of your front room. It seems that Pizza Express has been around forever.

Which, in restaurant terms, it has. The first one was opened in swinging Soho in 1965, by an entrepreneur named Peter Boizot (favourite pizza: Quattro Formaggi with extra green peppers and chopped basil). It may have been a time when the public's consciousness was being raised all round, but the doors of perception were slow to open to the flat base of dough with the cheese and tomato topping. "On our first day we took £3," remembers Boizot. "People approached it with caution. The pizza cost two shillings (10p) a slice, and we served it on disposable plates with plastic cutlery. We soon switched to steel when the cheese began to melt the implements."

Boizot (who'd fallen for pizza on an Italian odyssey in 1948), kept the faith, and refined the Pizza Express formula. "It appeals to mankind's basic appetite for simple, flavourful food," he rhapsodises.

Each new outpost, he decreed, would offer the same modest-but-constant menu. It would feature freshly-sourced ingredients; and it would be housed in quirky, off-beat settings - branches have opened in old dairies, churches and banks. Most important, it would transform what's essentially fast food into a slow-food, restaurant experience. "We're not a chain," says Harvey Smyth, chairman of Pizza Express, stressing its distance from rivals such as Pizza Hut. "We're a necklace of individual gems."

That necklace is now made up of just over 300 gems across the whole country, including branches in Jersey and Inverness; the company was recently valued at £800m. "The big reason for its success?" ponders Smyth (favourite pizza: American Hot - "I get through maybe two or three in a week"). "I think it's the simplicity of the concept. You know you can just drop in and get straightforward, delicious Italian food with pretty authentic ingredients. That's what's built up the loyalty over the years; about a third of our customers don't even need to look at the menu when they come in."

Such loyalty is shown to suppliers also - the chain, sorry, the necklace has been getting its tomatoes from the same Italian grower for its entire existence. Loyalty is also aided by Pizza Express' slightly left-field position in the market, from its beginnings, to its association with jazz - Boizot, now the company's president, was responsible for setting up the Knightsbridge club/pizzeria Pizza On The Park and the Soho Jazz Festival, which has featured performances by everyone from Harry Connick Jnr to Jamie Cullum. There's also goodwill generated by the Veneziana pizza carrying a 25p surcharge to raise money for the Venice in Peril Fund, which helps to restore buildings and artwork. Even the stripy matelot-style shirts worn by the staff carry a seditious hint of nouvelle vague and rive gauche.

"Out of all the alternatives in the high-street middle-market, such as Ask and Café Pasta, Pizza Express has always been regarded as the slightly cooler option, I think," says Smyth. "That's never been a conscious thing; it's a by-product of our origins and Peter Boizot's personal passions. "

Consequently, there's been a lot of public goodwill toward Pizza Express, so any backlash takes on a deeply personal and injurious tone. Take the period following the business going public in 1993 with 50 restaurants, and the rapid expansion over the next 10 years with a concomitant drop in profits and perceived value: people started complaining about the executives at head office who were putting shareholders above diners.

The ultimate symbol of this new rapaciousness was the story that the diameter of the pizzas had shrunk. "That one just won't lie down and die," sighs Smyth. "Actually, the pizzas have grown two inches, and I know that for sure because all our old pizza pans are too small. The rumour started circulating when places like Zizzi were stretching the dough to make their products bigger, so ours looked smaller in comparison. And it was a time when people were wondering if we could maintain our standards during the expansion."

In fact, concedes Smyth, one criticism he'd take on board is that the past few years saw too much emphasis on expansion. Consequently, plans to take the restaurant total to 500-plus have been put on hold, and the focus of the 40th birthday celebrations is on what Smyth describes as "reinvigorating the menu".

"I think we'd got a little bit stale," he says. "I mean, we're not talking radical changes; we're not dropping American Hot or anything. But we're tweaking a little, trying to introduce more variety."

That means using the new menu (launched in a few days) to entice regulars away from their dough-ball habits to sample the delights of a traditional buffalo mozarella and beef tomato salad; introducing them to the charms of the "posh" Margherita Regina pizza, where tomato paste is eschewed in favour of mozarella and beef tomato combined with torn basil; or persuading them to try a "robust" Nostrana salad with chicken, avocado, red peppers and green beans. Fresh pesto, shaved Parmesan, and Parma ham also pepper the new offerings.

"They are good nutritional alternatives, which customers are demanding," says Smyth. However, any good intentions will be definitively undone by the Chocolate Glory (on the new menu), which is a retro pudding combining vanilla ice cream and pieces of chocolate fudge cake in an old-fashioned sundae glass.

All of which should satisfy, without alienating, the steadfast Pizza Express fan base. "People have grown up with these restaurants," enthuses Smyth. "People have met their partners in them, people have actually got married in them." Another 40 years of Giardinieras and Fiorentinas, then? Why not, he says. "After all, if you're tired of pizza, you're tired of life."

For more information visit www.pizzaexpress.co.uk

PIZZA FACTS

* 15 million pizzas are consumed in Pizza Express each year.

* It employs 7,000 staff.

* PE customers have consumed 190 million pizzas since 1965.

* Every year, PE uses over 1,000 tonnes of tomato sauce and 900 tonnes of cheese.

* So far, The Veneziana pizza has raised £1.5m for Venice in Peril.

* The world's largest pizza was made in 1987 by Lorenzo Amato and Louis Piancone; it was cut into 94,248 slices.

* Norway consumes the largest quantity of pizza in Europe.

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