PizzaExpress, the Hony Capital-backed group, has reported a 0.9% decline in like-for-like sales across its UK and Ireland estate for the 52 weeks ended 1 January 2017 amidst a ”softening casual dining market”.

The Richard Hodgson-led group said that it had made a solid start to this year, with like-for-like sales back into growth in UK and Ireland during the first quarter.

However, it said the market remains challenging and that actions were “in place to help mitigate UK sector-wide cost pressures”.

Group turnover for the year, in which the company opened 16 new sites within the UK and Ireland, grew by 9.8% to £509.7m, whilst group EBITDA climbed 1.1% to £102.6m.

The company, which now has over 500 restaurant globally and sells over 34 million pizzas in UK supermarkets every year, said that its international business performed well - delivering “strong growth across all territories” - with 21 new site openings, including four franchises.

Hodgson, chief executive of PizzaExpress, said: “2016 was a good year for PizzaExpress, with our international business delivering particularly strong results, and our UK & Ireland business giving a resilient performance despite a challenging market environment. I am pleased to say that both our Group turnover and EBITDA were ahead of last year.

“We continued to expand the PizzaExpress estate in the UK & Ireland, opening 16 new restaurants as well as investing in our existing sites to ensure they remain fresh and attractive to our customers. It has also never been more important to innovate in line with evolving consumer tastes, which is why we have focussed on updating our menu seasonally, keeping it exciting and relevant.

“Throughout 2016, we continued to seek ways to broaden our channels and increase our customer base. We entered a partnership with Deliveroo so that we could participate more fully in the UK’s rapidly growing home delivery market – an exciting opportunity for us. Furthermore, we expanded our retail range, which continues to be popular with consumers.

“International growth continues to be a key pillar of PizzaExpress’s business strategy. In 2016, we opened 21 international sites, including a restaurant in Singapore, a new market for PizzaExpress.

“Mainland China, where we now operate 34 restaurants largely under the PizzaMarzano brand, remains an important focus area. China is a fast evolving market and we recognise that it is imperative to keep up with changing consumer tastes, ensuring our offering, especially our menu, stays relevant.

“We have had a good start to this year. We have achieved like-for-like sales growth in UK & Ireland despite the market backdrop. Our international business has been performing well and we have opened several new sites already, with more in the pipeline for the rest of the year.

“Looking ahead, we anticipate the UK market to remain challenging throughout 2017 and expect the unprecedented cost inflation impacting our sector to continue. Despite this, we believe in our business strategy and the strength of our offer. We will continue to drive innovation and efficiency in the UK, while also focussing on growing our international estate. We are confident that PizzaExpress will deliver further progress in the year ahead.”