Pizza Express - a vegan history
Back in April 2004 we made our first pizzas with the then new Redwood's super melting Cheezly. It's completely dairy-free, melts beautifully, tastes like the real thing and is free from saturated fat into the bargain. We hit upon the idea of showing a high street restaurant chain the wonders of this. It had to be Pizza Express, with their already high vegetarian credibility.
the first vegan Pizza Express party
It turned out that Pizza Express in Reading had a poor performance record and a recent change of managers. This was an ideal time to put forward new ideas, to a new manager who wanted new trade.
Stuart, the Reading Pizza Express manager, jumped at the idea. Having no previous vegetarian or vegan sympathies did not blind him to a new business opportunity.
On 24 May 2004 we held the first Pizza Express/Redwood's pizza party to celebrate National Vegetarian Week. We had 78 guests, many joining our group specifically for this event. They travelled from as far a Tawain and Germany. We had representives of the Vegan Society and Redwood's present. Redwood's supplied gift hampers for the raffle.
The guests sampled pizza featuring the whole range of Redwood's products, and they were fab. The fact that Stuart could not differentiate between his normal pizza and a "Redwood's pizza" shows just how good a product Redwood's had produced. The smiles say it all.
more vegan Pizza Express parties
Soon after there were two other Vegan Pizza Nights in Croydon and Salisbury.
Buoyed up by the success of these nights we envisaged a Nationwide Vegan Pizza Express Party to happen on November 1st - World Vegan Day. We suggested this to Stuart a few months in advance and he said he'd help co-ordinate it from the Pizza Express side.
Pizza Express were now talking directly to the Vegan Society and Redwoods, Pizza Express were also beginning to get good publicity in the trade press - our hopes were high.
Stuart and his regional manager saw the longer term business potential. He started stocking Redwood's products permanently. The people of Reading had the luxury of being able to turn up to their local Pizza Express and say "I'll have the vegan version of an American Hot please", or anything else on the menu. Reading's Pizza Express was now turning over Â£1000s of vegan pizzas a month.
The pizzas were not mentioned on the menu, nor were they advertised. All this trade was coming through word of mouth. New and very enthusiastic customers were appearing from nowhere, buying lots of food and costing nothing to attract! They brought their non-veggie friends with them. Can one imagine a nicer business?
Others within the veggie community realised the importance of a key vegan product being available in a major high street chain, and announcements of November 1st Vegan Pizza Parties began appearing all over the UK.
moving too fast for the bosses
Then disaster hit. A week before World Vegan Day with over 500 bookings taken in 12 branches, Pizza Express pulled back and this nationwide event was cancelled, bar the one in Reading.
The reasons given differed between who you spoke to. The official reason given was that Pizza Express had failed to undertake the necessary health and safety check on Redwood's and therefore such a major event might fail their own guidelines. But things are never that simple and the reasons for cancellation also include many other factors which can be summed under "just bad luck". In some ways it can be thought of as the tail wagging the dog and the dog not being happy about it.
Perhaps we moved too fast. It is all too easy to lose sight of how much of a cultural leap some have to take to get their heads around veganism and what it means to their business. We took Pizza Express from offering a dry cheeseless pizza with a few standard vegetables on top to a complete alternate menu that was as good as their standard menu, overnight.
Vegans do not fit well in the cooporate customer distribution statistics. Pizza Express had very nice numbers that stated to supply vegan food was not profitable - there just aren't enough vegans in a restaurant's catchment area to make it worth while. The problem with this way of thinking was that it was obviously wrong because Pizza Express Reading was making lots of money. 2% of its turnover was through vegan and dairy-free customers. For any large business to increase turnover by 2%, especially with no advertising, is big news.
grasping a new model for business growth
What Pizza Express HQ was failing to appreciate is that vegans are prepared to try that little bit harder to get a good meal. Their standard customer is not going to go out of his way just to buy a pizza, but a vegan will go far for a good vegan pizza and soya latte.
Maybe vegans are few, but they have omnivore friends. When it comes to choosing a restaurant, the vegan in the group is going to say, "let's go to Pizza Express!". You sell one vegan pizza but you may also sell 10 standard pizzas because of it. Only the manager on the ground can see this, the crude numbers sent head office fail to see the "vegan friend effect".
For more detail on this, with a pizza slant, read the Vegan Business Advantage in Catering
Lack of understanding of this market and its potential is not solely a Pizza Express problem. It is a mindset in all the major outlets. The key is to think beyond your own preferences to those of niche markets.
Pizza Express had their own ideas on what would attract more veggie customers and they had spent lots of money trying to discover it. The big idea was to add a bowl of nuts and another Mediterranean vegetable. No, this is boring as well as ubiquitous. What we want is a animal-free version of what you already do. Large companies are conservative in their menu changes. They are happiest when they are copying someone else. They are happy when they use words such as "exciting" to welcome a new vegetable on the menu. This is not the case for their potential new customers.
The retail world needs more Stuarts. They can see way beyond this.
Following the last minute pizza party cancellations, things got even worse. Pizza Express never sent someone to check out Redwood's state-of-the-art factory, so their products could not be added to the standard list. A new stock control manager at Pizza Express found "non-standard" products in Reading's fridges (Redwood's products) and laid down the law and out they went. No more vegan pizza on demand for now.
But .... important staff changes have recently happened at Pizza Express HQ. Maybe these new people will recognise what Start in Reading has demonstrated. Let's keep asking nicely!
Contact Pizza Express through their website. A letter is even better than email. Try other caterers too, such as Strada, Domino's and independent restaurants. The first one to adopt this permanently will be onto a good thing. Be polite, informative, and explain what is in it for them. You are representing us all.
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Story posted by on 2005-06-14 12:33:53.
Story last updated by on 2005-08-01 14:29:43.
Thames Valley Veggies are able to offer vegetarian option menu design and marketing assistance as well as chefs' workshops for restaurants, hotels, B&B's and catering companies.
Initial assistance from Thames Valley Veggies is given on a voluntary basis, but we welcome donations to national vegetarian organisations in return, particularly for workshops and more in-depth help.
We freely list businesses we consider particularly welcoming to vegetarians and vegans.