What do you fancy? Pizza Express staff to be taught how to flirt with customers

They already work long hours frantically dashing between tables and a sweltering kitchen while desperately trying to ply customers with a pudding or that extra glass of wine – but now Pizza Express employees will have to find time to flirt too.

Staff who have mastered the delicate balance of never keeping the customer waiting while avoiding pestering them are to be trained in the art of "subtle" flirtation.

The ubiquitous chain of Italian restaurants has recruited the actor Karl James to turn the more wooden among its workforce into vivacious hosts, exchanging small talk and banter at the same time as taking an order.

James, who is a specialist in "intimate conversations" will hold work-shops to train employees in the art of effortless chit-chat before the company's latest restaurant opens in Richmond, London, next week.

He told The Independent: "There's a difference between flirting with someone and coming on to them. We're not asking them to do that – that would be mad. But if you're a guy and a really gorgeous Italian girl comes to your table it's great to meet somebody like that. It's even better to hear her talk with passion and authenticity about the ingredients on the menu – that's the flirtation we're talking about."

Mr James has already held classes on the "mechanics of conversation" to the 40 staff at the Richmond branch, and hopes to roll the scheme out across the entire chain.

But Lucie Wrightson, a 20-year-old Manchester University student who worked at rival Italian chain Zizzi to top up her student loan, said the life of a waiter or waitress is hard enough without trying to introduce romance to the restaurant. "They want your service to be tip-top all the time. It's got to be top standard. It was really, really pressured working there," she said.

"I thought it'd be pretty straightforward but there are so many rules about the way in which you have to greet customers."

"A lot of the customers would find [flirting] uncomfortable – when you go into a restaurant for a nice meal with someone you don't want to be intruded on by someone who's overly friendly the whole time."

Angela Barron, from the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, said that most customers were likely to appreciate "friendly" flirting. "What they're doing here is trying to educate people to build a relationship with customers so instead of just 'Come in, sit down, what do you want, here it is,' it's 'How are you, what a nice day it is, is it your birthday?' – giving them that personalised experience that makes them feel good," she said.