Anyone eating in Pizza Hut on Oxford Street in London after 5pm on a weekday may have been served by a rather studious-looking Dutchman in his mid-forties. That man is Jens Hofma, the managing director of Pizza Hut UK & Ireland, who spends four hours serving tables every other week to help keep him close to customers and staff.
His commitment to waitering has taken a back seat recently as he has been involved in the process to sell Pizza Hut UK. Its owner, Yum Brands, which also operates the KFC and Taco Bell chains worldwide, wants to refranchise its entire UK pizza business. To this end, it is seeking a buyer for its 380 company-owned restaurants and 320 delivery outlets to serve as a master franchisor.
The day job of Mr Hofma since February 2009 has been to turn around the ailing performance of Pizza Hut UK, which had failed to keep up with the changing tastebuds of consumers. Groups such as Pizza Express, Nando's and the pubs have nibbled away at its share of the casual-dining market over much of the last decade.
The actions taken, such as replacing a third of its restaurant managers, investing in staff training and offering a free unlimited salad with every meal, appear to be paying off at the 700-outlet UK chain.
Pizza Hut UK returned to growth in the last six months of 2011, with its like-for-like sales up by more than 3 per cent. Mr Hofma said its sales have remained in positive territory so far this year, as it has outperformed the market.
But overall it has been a tough five years for the chain, which no doubt convinced Yum to appoint PwC recently to sell Pizza Hut UK.
First-round bids for the business are due before the end of February and Mr Hofma says, "the shorter the process, the happier I am going to be". He explains this is "not a sell-out in the traditional sense", as the new operator of the pizza chain will continue to pay a royalty to Yum to use the brand in the UK and gain access to its system's knowledge.
Yum, which has nearly 38,000 restaurants in over 110 countries across its three brands, wants the new owner to invest in expanding and refurbishing Pizza Hut UK, as the group focuses its capital expenditure on the fast-growing markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Mr Hofma says: "What we now need is quite a lot of capital investment to make our restaurants look a lot more exciting and to do a lot of revamps and remodels." Yum plans to remodel 250 Pizza Hut restaurants over the next three to four years, representing a capital commitment of £25m to £30m.
But Yum's decision to put Pizza Hut UK on the market makes its grand debut in the UK in 1982 seems like a distant memory. More recently, Yum paid £112m for the remaining 50 per cent stake in Pizza Hut UK held by Whitbread, the leisure group, in 2006.
Mr Hofma says: "In the 1980s and 1990s, Pizza Hut was a massively successful restaurant concept in the UK. I think we had a fairly clear playing field. There wasn't a huge amount of competition in the market."
The Dutchman confesses to being an Anglophile and his first stand-up presentation at school at the age of eight was about London.
Mr Hofma: "What we have seen in the last 10 years is that the UK has gone from being one of the least competitive casual dining markets in the world to probably being one of the most competitive." Indeed, Pizza Hut UK's latest accounts show a pre-tax loss of £22.19m for the year to 28 November 2010 – its fourth consecutive year of losses.
Before his time, Mr Hofma admits that Pizza Hut was "late" in responding to the changes taking place in the casual-dining market and that it "disappointed a lot of customers".
Since 2009, the "mission" of Mr Hofma, whose favourite pizza is a double pepperoni, has been to make Pizza Hut a "relevant family, casual dining brand in the UK".
Mr Hofma, who is "passionate" about customer service, says it has invested about £3m in staff and training, including on food preparation and hygiene standards, over the past two years. Pizza Hut has also improved the quality of its menu and ingredients to the extent that about half its customers now eat its thin-base pizzas.
The UK chain has also radically moved away from a "very militaristic approach of prescribing everything" in the last six months, notably by slashing the number of rules for staff. For instance, Pizza Hut now has just three rules for hosting guests: greet them within 20 seconds, take them to a table and give them a menu.
While staff still receive coaching, Pizza Hut has given them the freedom to be themselves and provide "genuine and heartfelt" service, says Mr Hofma.
He adds: "Once you start to do that, you actually start to give people life skills that are transferable, rather than treating them like monkeys. This was a huge cultural change in our organisation. We have seen our staff respond to that very enthusiastically and service scores have gone up considerably."
In addition, Pizza Hut UK now receives only one complaint for every 2,000 transactions, an improvement of around a third.
The pizza chain has also kicked off a pilot of three revamped restaurants in Solihull, Birmingham, the city's Bullring shopping centre, and in Thurrock, Essex. The stores have enjoyed a 10 per cent uplift in sales after they were updated with new décor, an expanded menu and more oven-based pizzas.
Pizza Hut also plans to double the number of its delivery outlets, which have continued to perform well, by 2020.
The wider changes made seem to be helping Pizza Hut to put its dark days behind it. Mr Hofma says: "We have started to see sales come back and that is starting to translate into a better profit performance."
Responsibility for taking Pizza Hut UK to the next level will fall to a new owner, if the sale goes ahead. As Mr Hofma, Pizza Hut UK's most senior and best-paid waiter, says: "We are not claiming victory yet. There is a lot more change to come and many things that we need to do to really make sure we have a relevant guest experience."
Jens Hofma CV
* After stints at the food giant Nestlé and the consultancy McKinsey, Mr Hofma was hired by Yum Brands in 2004 as its finance director for Europe. He then became KFC's UK finance and business development director in 2005. Before joining Pizza Hut UK in February 2009, Mr Hofma spent nearly two years running KFC in Germany and the Netherlands.
* The 45-year old lives in London with his partner and "loves" going to the theatre. His claim to fame is that he owns a fighting cow, Melissa. She takes part in the Swiss cow-fighting championships, where the cows push each other with blunted horns.