As one of the pioneers of casual dining in the UK, PizzaExpress holds a unique position in the nation’s psyche. UK managing director Zoe Bowley talks to Mel Flaherty about keeping the brand relevant after more than half a century on the high street.

“’Deregulated eating’. It sounds ridiculous!” says Zoe Bowley, managing director of PizzaExpress in the UK and Ireland. “It’s basically ‘eat what you want, when you want’.”

Talking about the trial of piattini – small plates – at 33 of the 470 restaurants she is ultimately responsible for, it is clear Bowley is no fan of buzz phrases. But in addition to being straight-talking, she is a realist. She recognises that as a scale business and as one whose long-term success is largely due to its clear-cut offer, PizzaExpress is not at the bleeding edge of eating-out trends. Yet she is acutely aware that in order to stay differentiated in an increasingly competitive market, the brand must remain relevant and innovate in a way that befits the original pioneering spirit of the now 53-year-old casual dining market leader.

Bowley has been head of the group for six months, having previously spent six years as operations director of the business. Moving away from operations was a big step for someone who had always enjoyed being field-based – the main things Bowley says she learned from her year-long university work placement with Esso was that she could never constantly work in an office and that there was such a thing as an area manager. It was a role she set her sights on when she joined the then Allied Lyons brewery graduate programme and achieved during her four years there (the company became Allied Domecq within that time).

This set her off on a hospitality career that has included stints at Café Rouge and David Lloyd Leisure, the health club chain, while working for 10 years at Whitbread, before she spent almost two years out of the industry as operations director of Weight Watchers.

Just as her heart always remained in the leisure industry, leading her to jump at the chance to get back to it when the opportunity arose at PizzaExpress, her soul has always been in operations. When she worked in a human resources role briefly after her first maternity leave at PizzaExpress, Bowley said she felt “like my right arm had been cut off”.

Getting up to speed

In the early stages of getting up to speed with her current job, Bowley had to spend more time in an office than she had ever previously been accustomed to. She admits it was something of a culture shock. However, she is now happily back to splitting her time both at PizzaExpress HQ and out in the restaurants. And the former will soon be made even more palatable, in every way, at the end of this summer when a new PizzaExpress innovation centre opens bang opposite the head office building it has now occupied for two years. She says getting pizza back into the head office will be a big plus.

The responsibility of ensuring that the legacy of PizzaExpress founder Peter Boizot remains at the heart of the brand while driving growth under Chinese owner Hony Capital in what is quite a mature business (and at a time when cost pressures are everincreasing) is, she admits, heavy. But her enthusiasm and positivity (both of which are unavoidably infectious) have made her ready for the challenge, she believes.

“I could easily end up running board meetings talking about things we can’t do with GDPR, salt levels, sugar tax and Brexit,” she says. “And leading PizzaExpress now, it would be easy to just batten down the hatches. But positivity breeds positivity.”

Since taking the reins at PizzaExpress, Bowley’s focus has been on reigniting the emotional connection between PizzaExpress and both staff and customers. She says the brand became a bit too functional in recent years. Later she talks about how intense it was when Gondola Holdings was selling PizzaExpress to Hony and says that if she was involved in the sale of a business again, she would want to ensure senior management were able to remain more involved in the day-to-day running of it during the whole process. You can’t help but wonder if the two are linked. Either way, Bowley is in the throes of addressing the issue.

Successful marketing

On the customer-facing side, there have already been two successful marketing campaigns – one at Christmas, the other for Mother’s Day – both based around people getting together at the restaurants. Both had record views via social media and led to big spikes in sales. Bowley is hopeful for similar results from the upcoming summer campaign.

Bowley believes the reason this approach is striking a chord with customers is because it rings true – as the brand has been around so long, many people have memories and feelings based around times they have visited. She says she recently picked up the bill for a family eating at one of the restaurants because she overheard the older son, who had evidently just returned from travelling, saying he had waited a year and couldn’t wait to eat a PizzaExpress Fiorentina pizza: “If only I could have bottled that,” she says.

The company is also investing significantly in its staff, despite the need to implement cost efficiencies. In March, the firm hosted its first global conference, for 800 people, where, by happy coincidence, it was able to announce PizzaExpress’ achievement of ‘Superbrands’ status for the first time. Training is available up to a degree level qualification and by the end of this year, every single manager will have been on a two-day leadership course. Bowley says this has played a big part in achieving eight months of declining staff turnover – which obviously has good cost implications for the business.

“We are doing a huge piece of work on our brand proposition at the moment and we have got to give our people the context of why we are doing things and take them on the journey,” she explains.

The new approach, which Bowley concedes is more about taking a step back and referencing what made PizzaExpress popular in the first place, rather than a radical overhaul, seems to be paying off in other ways. The day of this interview, PizzaExpress unveiled a 0.4% increase in UK sales for the year to 1 January 2018, good news after the previous year’s 0.9% drop in sales. Bowley says that on a rolling quarterly basis, the group is performing ahead of the market.

Bowley feels strongly that it is important for the whole industry to stay vocal about positive events and the many pluses it brings to the economy and society as a whole. She is concerned about the negative impact of the UK press portrayal of a declining casual dining market, fed by recent stories of troubles at Byron, Prezzo and Jamie’s. She is involved with the UKHospitality trade body as she says it is important that the benefits and successes of the sector are promoted – such as the fact the total taxes it pays cover the UK defence budget.

While there is inevitably some belt tightening going on and acquisitions have deliberately slowed in the UK, Bowley says PizzaExpress remains committed to its rolling programme of about 50 investments a year. This year, five new UK sites were already scheduled to open, including Rushden Lakes, Bromley and a second at the Bluewater shopping centre (the other locations have yet to be revealed), and Bowley says two more have recently come onto the radar, which could happen quickly enough to push that number up to seven.

Following the successful partnership with Welcome Break for the first PizzaExpress at a motorway services area, further restaurants will also open at the services areas in South Mimms, Beaconsfield and Cobham by the end of this year. Bowley says the business is always exploring other formats to drive growth, with travel hubs being the platform she is asked about most. She says it is something the brand is at the very early stages of exploring and she keeps an open mind about all potential opportunities, always checking out the competition (the night before this interview she had eaten at Gordon Ramsay’s Street Pizza, for example).

Opening under-used space for live music is another strategy the business is looking into further, after the successful launch of PizzaExpress Live in the basement of the High Holborn restaurant, which is now filled seven days a week.

There are five dedicated live music spaces within the UK estate, including the original Soho Jazz Club where the link between PizzaExpress and music performance was born in 1976. Around 30 other restaurants in the chain regularly host live singers and players on a Thursday evening and this will be extended to other sites where relevant.

Using technology Bowley also sees further opportunities to differentiate and to grow sales within the chain via technology. Working for a company owned by one of the world’s most technologically-advanced countries brings benefits in this field, of course.

The firm recently launched its PizzaExpress app which allows customers to pay at the table and Bowley was shocked that downloads smashed the annual target within the first week, when it was second only to WhatsApp in the free app downloads on App Store. She says there is still a way to go on customer engagement with it and in getting staff to encourage use of the app but maintains it will feed into the business’s digital and social strategy, which is undergoing investment at the moment. The aim is to help the brand better use its database and make offers, promotions and discounts more targeted and less broad-brush than in the past.

“This is about making it relevant and optimising day parts,” Bowley says. “We want people to come in not just because they have a voucher.” She adds that PizzaExpress marketing is also concentrating on connecting the delivery and grocery customers to the restaurants and vice versa to maximise the benefits to the brand. Investment in those two revenue streams is also constant to ensure the end product remains top quality – for instance, new delivery packaging has been introduced to keep pizzas hotter for longer.

Again, not earth-shattering stuff perhaps. But it is all progress and it is all positive. And that’s exactly how Bowley likes it.

Mel Flaherty is a freelance journalist specialising in the hospitality sector