It was where we went on our first date. It was where we took our kids for meals out. And it was the one place we always knew we could get something decent to eat when we were stranded in a strange town. As Pizza Express runs into trouble and could ultimately fold, there has been a wave of nostalgic affection for the chain. Twitter is alive with campaigns to come to its rescue, and the tabloids are serving up elegiac farewells. At this point, it would hardly be a great surprise if John McDonnell called for it to be nationalised, or if Boris Johnson stepped in to create a ‘People’s Pizza’ company to buy it out.
True, it was a great business in its day. In the half century after it was founded in Soho in 1965, it introduced the concept of casual dining – smart, reasonably priced, stylish, reliable restaurants on the High Street – to Britain. It was a pioneer, which showed a post-war boiled potatoes and pork chops country that good Italian food could be served in an attractive atmosphere just about anywhere and money could be made from it. Without it, all of our culinary experiences would have been far poorer.
And yet the reality is that Pizza Express is also a hollowed out shell of a company. Over the last twenty years it has been swapped between private equity houses and loaded up with mountains of debt. It was floated on the stock market in 1993, taken over by an investment firm, then re-floated, and then passed from one private equity house to another until its current owner, China’s Hony Capital, bought it for £900 million in 2014. Each time it switched from one anonymous group of financiers to another it lost a little more of its soul until there was not very much left.
It is a long time since it innovated on anything. The pizzas seemed smaller and smaller (a typical private equity trick) the premises started to look slightly run down and the menus hardly changed from year to year. In the meantime, the companies it inspired raced past it. There are far better-run chains out there and thousands of artisan restaurants have opened up around the country. And there are dozens of more imaginative, stylish casual dining chains such as Nando’s or Chiquito. We can choose from Mexican, Asian-fusion, Thai, Lebanese or Chinese, or some combination of them all. With so much choice, there was nothing special about Pizza Express anymore.
There is nothing unusual about that. Capitalism advances through creative destruction.
In its pomp, Pizza Express helped turn the British restaurant trade upside down and introduced us to a whole new way of eating. That is what entrepreneurs do. But after half a century, it is about as stale as month-old dough ball. So we could do without the crocodile tears.
It remains to be seen what happens to Pizza Express. If it can find a way to restructure its debts, then great. It might even have some money to freshen up its menu and premises. But if it goes down it will only be the Chinese private equity owners who really suffers. No one else needs to mind very much.