PizzaExpress prepares to deliver crisp notes to shareholders

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The Independent Online

PizzaExpress, the restaurant chain which has delighted the City with its sparkling performance this year, is considering returning cash to shareholders through either a share buy-back or a dividend.

The company, which operates 275 restaurants, wants to reduce its cash pile that has amassed following a succession of good results. The company's chief executive, Ian Eldridge, said: "To some extent we are considered too conservative, and we are sometimes told that our balance sheet is inefficient. We are planning to address that."

Asked if he was considering a share buy-back or dividend to reduce the surplus, Mr Eldridge said: "We are reviewing both options."

But the City isn't unhappy with the company as its shares have risen 54 per cent this year.

PizzaExpress's last set of results, in February, showed a £9.5m cash surplus on the company's balance sheet. PizzaExpress posted a 30 per cent first-half profit rise to £19.5m.

However, some of PizzaExpress's cash surplus will be eaten up by the company's expansion plans. It is working on proposals to open a chain of takeaway restaurants at Britain's railway stations. "The concept is something like Pret a Manger meets PizzaExpress, where customers can buy quality pizza on the go," said Mr Eldridge.

He said that the company was already in advanced negotiations to secure sites, and the first outlets will be opened this year. Overall, Mr Eldridge hopes that PizzaExpress will be operating 500 restaurants, excluding ones at stations, in six to seven years' time.

Mr Eldridge is also planning to extend PizzaExpress's popular jazz nights, when live music is performed inside selected restaurants. The company currently has two permanent jazz restaurants ­ in London's Soho and in Maidstone, Kent.

It also operates an international division, where restaurants are franchised and owned outright. Mr Eldridge has earmarked the overseas operation for growth, too.