I spent some time speaking to MOD Pizza founder Scott Svenson and the brand’s UK chief executive John Nelson and there is one word that springs up time and time again – education. Whether that has been Nelson’s education in the way of MOD, Svenson’s re-education with a sector that has moved on at pace since he helped launch Carluccio’s 17 years ago or, more importantly, the education that the pair hope their concept will provide UK consumers in terms of how it has moved the pizza market forward, but also how it treats its staff and the local community.
The joint venture between the Svensons; Sir Charles Dunstone, who brought the Five Guys burger chain to the UK three years ago; and investor Roger Taylor; was launched at the start of this month in Leeds, at the Cardigan Fields leisure park. After a significant investment, the group’s debut site launched alongside fellow fast-casual operators Five Guys and Nelson’s former employers Nando’s, pitching it up against some strong competition right away.
As Svenson, who launched the concept eight years ago in the US with his wife Ally, puts it: “The thing I am most excited about bringing to the UK is the people-led culture we have, the way we are making a difference in people’s lives and the purpose behind the brand. It will be really fun to see this come to life in provincial towns in places like Leeds, Man-chester, Bristol and Glasgow.”
It was this people-led culture and the strength of the overall offer, which tempted Nelson to leave Nando’s after six years, where he had been accountable for more than 350 restaurants. Nelson says: “I had no intentions of leaving Nando’s and had six fantastic years at a great business. But after visiting MOD in the US, I found myself inspired by the opportunity of bringing this unique brand to the UK.
“I loved the proposition and quality of product and then you sit in one of the restaurants and notice the demo-graphic the concept appeals to, which is everybody – young families and kids, Millennials and, more surprisingly, grandmas and grandpas.
“The last piece of the puzzle was the culture, and everything I experienced was underpinned by the strength of the ‘MOD Squad’, the feeling that came across was that everyone genuinely wanted to be there and cared about what they did, and that was the case at every site I went into. It is very community-based and very real. Like any good business it is not just about the proposition and as Ally and Scott say ‘the last thing the world needs is another pizza chain!’ MOD is genuinely trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”
You sense this culture-led approach will become MOD’s calling card. As in the US, the concept launched its new 110-cover Leeds site by setting up a ‘bridge fund’ – an emergency relief fund for the staff, while at the grand opening, 100% of the proceeds for all pizza sales went to a local charity. “This is something we started in the US and again reinforces that connection with the local community and the values of giving back that we hold dear”, says Svenson.
“Engagement of staff and the way in which brands treat their people and, therefore, the impact that their people have on how the experience is delivered is the new frontier. Looking at the way retail design has been transformed over the past 10 years, it will be interesting to see if the way people are engaged in this sector and how they feel about their jobs will be transformed in a similar way.”
As Svenson intimates with that last comment, MOD is planning to have a national presence here and has spoken before of the opportunity for the brand to grow to “hundreds of stores” in the UK.
It will first look to open five sites here before the end of the year, with a plan to test the concept across different trading segments. Svenson admits that the company is starting to fill its pipeline; a second site will open in Brighton Marina in August, while the group is in negotiations for further units in locations including Newcastle and in the Midlands. Nelson says: “We would obviously love to do a London flagship and are continuing to look for the right opportunity. We want to test the brand in five very different locations across the UK. We make a decision around the turn of the year about the speed of the rollout, after the test of concept.”
Svenson says: “We are going to open, learn and explore. The first five we open are going to be about exploring and learning more than anything else. We are intentionally opening sites in different trading areas to learn as much as we can.
“We are not opening every site assuming each one will be consistently successful; we are more focused on trying to understand how the concept translates to the UK and using those sites to establish our priorities going forward. There will be geographic diversification and a trade area diversification across that first tranche of sites. It will be a fun and educational process.
“Not only do we have to learn about the real estate, but we will also, with the experienced team we have here, look at what tweaks we need to make to the
concept to make it relevant for the UK consumer and these might be transferred back across to our US operation. Just by doing a tour of Leeds city centre, I continue to be impressed by the standards being set by the independent operators, from store design to execution.”
MOD serves 11-inch pizzas that have toppings chosen by the customer from a core range of 34 ingredients. Like Five Guys, there is no waiter service. Instead, customers go up to a ‘pizza builder’ and choose their own toppings. They can also build their own salad for £7.47. MOD’s signature 11-inch pizzas will be priced at £7.47 in the regions and £7.87 in London. The concept expects to take, on average, five minutes from when the consumer orders to delivery of their pizza. The brand will also highlight the company’s ‘hand-spun’ milkshakes and salads. It is felt that the group’s salads could be almost a secret weapon here for the group.
The group spent the best part of six months building a supply chain to match the taste profile of the US offer and is “delighted” with what it has achieved here. To aid its growth in this respect, the company has appointed Anome Oyetey, formerly head of procurement at Domino’s Pizza, as its new supply-chain director.
Nelson says: “Nothing significant has changed in the pizza segment for 40 years, it really has not moved on that much, so the opportunity is there for MOD to educate the consumer about a different way of offering an established product.” Let the fun and the lesson begin.