Photo courtesy of Unity PR, on behalf of PizzaExpress.
I love independent. I really like to support local, to find individual shops, eateries and places of interest, and I like to give them my business. I’m not doing this because I want to be poncy; I’m doing it because I am, essentially, a creature of habit. Once I’ve found somewhere I like I’ll shout about it from the rooftops, tell everybody I know, and bring copious amounts of people there. Just ask the Mooli’s boys – they can’t get rid of me!
So when I received an email a few weeks ago from one of the PR team at Unity for PizzaExpress I nearly trashed it immediately. PizzaExpress is not just pizza (which we already know I have an aversion to) but it’s the very name: Express. Express meaning fast. Meaning chain. Meaning I’m-not-going-there-voluntarily. Narrow-minded? Sure. But like I said: creature of habit.
I have been to PizzaExpress before, twice on fairly monumental occasions: my first date with David (and we only went there because it was a dinner & theatre deal), the second the “rehearsal dinner” the night before my oldest friend’s wedding. But I’ve never eaten the pizza and clearly the meal wasn’t the stand-out memory for both occasions.
Genie, editor of Young & Poor.
PizzaExpress have been revamping their image, beginning with a nation-wide competition to create a brand new pizza, now down to its final stages, 5 pizzas from 50,000 entries, with the winner picked by the public. But why revamp now? After all, the first store opened in Soho in 1965 and now, over 40 years later, they have over 400 locations around the world. It’s because competition is stiff. We’re coming out of the recession (or lingering on the borders, at least), businesses are beginning to push, trying to increase their appeal, and of course there are new entrepreneurs. Many people, just like me, have the prejudice that PizzaExpress is a chain and is, therefore, not as good. Plus the market they’ve been tapping into thus far has been the evening diners, and certain other competitors are already providing breakfast and light lunches.
Interestingly, these prejudices could be more of a London thing. A friend from Leicester tells me that back home PizzaExpress is the upmarket place to go out for dinner or big events, it’s on par with Zizzi’s and Ask (which, to me, are both chains), but she also tells me this is because it’s still relatively “new”, still fresh… and it’s more expensive than your average pizza which makes it “different”.
Myself and fellow-blogger Shahnaz from Eye On Richmond.
Photo credit: Rudi Morgan.
Now comes the shocker: with all that mind, how did I end up going to the Richmond PizzaExpress’ Living Lab launch party last night, an invitation-only event, attended by gastronomical bigwigs like Antonio Carluccio, and Nina Wadia of TV fame? Quite simply because I was invited, and as a food blogger who tries to be keyed into what’s happening in and around London, this sounded like an event I shouldn’t really miss. Plus there was the promise of free pizza (blah) & prosecco (yay) and I could bring a +1, so I called up Genie, the editor of Young & Poor, and together we rocked up to Richmond on a chilly Wednesday night.
One of the basil living herb pots that are dotted around the restaurant, along with pots of rosemary and thyme.
The Richmond restaurant is the “flagship” restaurant, the model on which all of the other restaurants around the country will be designed, where the menus will be tested, where (from today) it will be open from 8.45am with its new Breakfast Bar, featuring items such as Skinny Grape Bread from Chef Liliana Tamberi, and the (much talked about and anticipated) Dough Balls with Nutella, plus a new “tapas-style” lunchtime menu, featuring Pizzettine (bite-sized pizza tasters) and Pitta Pizza bites (a stuffed pitta bite), ideal for the mum-on-the-go, or young professionals grabbing a quick bite. At least that’s how they’re marketing themselves.
The central speaker in the pod-booths.
The design itself is impressive. With huge floor to ceiling windows and a largely white-walled design (using red and blue lighting for accentuation), it feels bright and airy, even at 7pm at night. They’ve got in the country’s leading authority on Acoustics, Sergio Luzzi, a man who is literally obsessed with sound, and has created alien spaceship-esque discs which hang from the ceiling at various heights, angled to either bounce or absorb sound and create a better dining experience, and pod-booths where you can sit and play your own iPod through a special central table speaker which will then only be heard by the diners at that particular table; designer Ab Rogers, the man behind Heston Blumenthall’s Little Chef re-design (which explains why when I likened the re-design ideas to Heston’s to PizzaExpress CEO Mark Angela, he waved it off somewhat dismissively, although I didn’t know why at the time); Enzo Apicella, the original architect of PizzaExpress; and many many more. Even the toilets have been thoroughly thought through, and feature “the sounds of Napoli” coming through the overhead speakers (which is both slightly disturbing – hello cow mooing as I’m relieving myself – and remarkably similar to Heston’s Little Chef toilet redesign)…
Andreya Triana performs in the new interactive performance space.
Mark Angela, CEO of PizzaExpress.
See, those PizzaExpress people? They’re clever. They know that in trying to reach a larger audience, specifically daytime, they’re reaching the mums. They got hold of Carrie Longton, the Mumsnet founder, and they talked to mums, listened to their feedback, and implemented it. Genie was most impressed by the sign in the baby changing room which states, “Need nappies? Just ask us!” – see what I mean? Clever. Mark Angela told me, as we were standing in the special kids’ play area, that they also had special stools which could be pulled up to the kitchen counter, just for the kids to sit and watch the chefs at work, learning through play and fun.
But this is a food blog, so how about the food? The bites on offer yesterday evening, a selection from their new menu, are, dare I say it, delicious. The combinations are nothing particularly ground-breaking, but the crispy bases and the toppings… well. They’re good. They’re light. Better still the chefs are there in the open kitchen, working so fast they’re more a blur of hands and black and white uniforms (designed by Matthew Miller, award-winning fashion designer), Pizzetines are being consumed almost at the same rate they’re coming out of the ovens and being plated. This is real food. I held back a little, but Genie definitely tried a little of everything that came her way, forcing me to share her Skinny Grape Bread, popping dough balls dipped in Nutella like… well, dough balls dipped in Nutella.
Second photo credit: Rudi Morgan.
But, of course, this launch party was crammed full of all sorts of people, cast members from Eastenders, fellow restauranteurs, company founders and staff, children, a handful of bloggers, including Shahnaz from Eye On Richmond – in fact it was so oversubscribed they apparently had to un-invite some people, ask them to come another night. And so we talked. Boy did we talk. We talked to the Design Manager, we talked to the Marketing Team, we talked to the PR guys (special mention to Rudi, my original PR man from Unity, who not only made sure we were happy, but also spent the majority of the night hanging out with us, boogying on the dance floor and making fun of Genie, who was still eating everything that came her way – she’s a tiny girl! Where does it all go?!) we talked to the Brand Manager, we cornered Mark Angela for a chat about the future of PizzaExpress; and you know what was astounding about all of this? Every single person we talked to was completely passionate about what they were doing. About this venture they were undertaking. About the team they were a part of. About the exciting things that lay in the future. And that was a remarkable thing to discover. They don’t just like their job – they love it.
Genie and Rudi.
I went there with my reservations, and I left having had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. It was definitely not what I expected, but despite Angela’s insistence that they are not a chain, they are. But they’re a chain who are proud of what they can achieve, who want to stand out from the crowd and be different: this is not just a facelift. Is it going to work completely and be able to be implemented everywhere? Well no, but then that’s the point. This is a Living Lab, it’s an experiment, and the best parts will be whisked away and rolled out country-wide as they go. Will it work in Leicester as it works in Richmond? Who knows. Only time will tell.
Whilst Angela may insist that he’s had nothing to do with any of this, he writes the checks and lets them get on with it, he’s a clever man with a fabulous team behind him. His parting words to me are, “make sure you blog about this,” accompanied by a cheeky smile – oh Mark. How could I not?
Mark Angela & The Bloggers.
PizzaExpress Living Lab
Red Lion Street
Open from 8.45am.
Curious to know more? Photos got you hungry? Want to know just how those incredible pod-booths work? Visit the new PizzaExpress Living Lab and check it out for yourself – drop me a line and let me know what you thought. Until next time, peace and love.