With sales nudging £2bn a year, the UK leads the way in the evolution of the pizza. At one end of the market, the recession has brought a boom for value-for-money delivered pizzas. At the other end, classic Italian-style pizzas have become increasingly sophisticated, offering theatre and imaginative toppings in equal proportion.
It's here that pubs have begun to make a significant, though still small, contribution.
For smart operators, the pizza offers simplicity and high profit margins, plus the potential to pull in a broader, family audience. Getting it right at the top of the market, though, and gaining the unique selling point that can attract the pizza-lover requires a generous investment and perhaps a little more effort and application than you might expect.
The Stoneham Story
Martin Webb, the former C-Side boss and presenter of TV business trouble-shooting reality show Risking It All, now runs a handful of pubs in Brighton & Hove. His latest venture is the Stoneham, a dingey Brakspear leasehold he relaunched last Sep-
tember as a bright and bustling 'pub and pizzeria'.
Webb's oldest pub, the Robin Hood, has served high quality back-bar pizzas for several years. But the Stoneham is quite a departure from that, as well as from the gastro-style operations in his other houses.
"It's been a massive learning curve," he says. "At the beginning, when we were busy, the service ground to a halt, we simply couldn't produce
pizzas quickly enough.
"So now we do more preparation and make sure we've got enough
people on when we know it's going to be a busy night. We'll have six staff in the kitchen on a Saturday. It works like a production line and we can guarantee people will have their pizza in 10 minutes.
"Fridge space was also a problem. We've had to buy extra fridges. And the menu has evolved. At the beginning we tried to do too much. So
we've slimmed down the menu to the most popular and most efficient pizzas to make."
The Stoneham has 150 covers, including an area reserved for more formal dining, and it can sell 300 pizzas a day.
Pizzas are made in an open kitchen to the side of the long bar. "When you can see and smell it being cooked it makes a big difference," says Webb. Total spend on equipment was about £40,000, including £8,000 for an electric two-deck pizza oven that can bake 18 pizzas at a time.
Standard pizzas are 13-inch, Sicilian-style, with prices starting at £7. Nine-inch versions are served at lunchtimes for just £4.95. Specials, which come on a square base, rise
to £12. There is also head chef Brett Mather's own invention, the Turkish pizza. They sell well later in the evening.
"It's not an expensive menu," says Webb. "We've designed it with families in mind. We make our own dough, that's the main thing to get right. We also roast our own vegetables, and we're about to start making our own ice cream.
"I'm a great pizza lover myself, but I hate the American-style pizzas. These are European pizzas. We want to make it like you're sitting on the quayside at Naples."
Brighton's Indigo Pub Company has experimented with pizzas in the past, but when the Hanover Pub & Restaurant opened earlier this year it took the concept to a new level.
An open kitchen has been installed in the light and airy refurbished corner pub and a full pizza menu has been introduced, alongside coffee and cakes and an extended wine list.
"For us it's about the theatre of pizzas," says Indigo director Chris Bloomfield. "Pizzas work in a pub. We used to do gastro food here and we were getting through a few chefs.
Gastro is difficult to manage, it's hard to make money.
"With pizzas, if you do them properly, you can aim for a wider market — families, people with kids. There's always a good GP, it's a simple concept, it's not labour intensive, you don't need chefs. But you do still need to train people. It's more technical than you think.
"So far GP on pizzas is 73%, and that's including wastage through training. We were hoping for anything over 70%, so we're pleased with that.
"We could buy cheaper ingredients, but it's important to get the right cheese, the right dough. All the toppings are done freshly here, using fresh herbs.
"It's about quality. We're still learning about portion control. We're not a big chain, so we're not as careful about how much topping we put on. We don't skimp. It's more important to get the pizza right. It needs to look handmade, like it hasn't come out of a packet.
"We spent £10,000 on kitchen equipment including the oven, which can do eight 12-inch pizzas at a time."
The Hanover is managed by Su Toner. Most of her team have been trained to work on the pizza side of the business as well as behind the bar.
"There are people on during the day doing prep and in the evenings we have one preparing dough, one doing the toppings and one operating the oven.
"It's high pressure because it's all done freshly. You've got to be really well organised and you've got to work well as a team. You get a real buzz when it's busy, though.
"Dough management is important. It's defrosted for 10 hours including half an hour out of the fridge to allow it to prove and become easier to work with. You have to keep it to a small area, you can't get flour on the bottom of the pan or it will burn."
To build on the natural link between pizza and wine, the back bar has been rebuilt to an All Bar One-type design to better display wines.
"The range was increased to include a few Italians," says Bloomfield. "Wine sales are up — especially Prosecco — but we still do well on ales. It's not an Italian restaurant, it's a pub, and we want to keep the atmosphere of a pub because it's more informal. There's no table service and we still have a quiz night.
"It's important to be clear about what you're trying to do, whether it's a pub or a restaurant, or people will feel uncomfortable."
At the Capital Pub Company's Clarence in Balham, south London, it all starts with the oven, an impressive gas-fired American-built Wood Stone that not only bakes pizzas but cooks a whole range of pub dishes such as spatchcock chicken, whole roast fish and roast pork.
Since the Clarence reopened with the concept earlier this year, a similar oven and menu has been put into the Actress in East Dulwich and at the company's latest opening, New Cross House. It's the brainchild of Capital's development manager Scott Collins.
"The oven is both theatre and a tool — and an expensive one at £20,000," he says. "You could do the cooking with an electric oven, but this is our USP.
"These aren't pizza pubs, but we're selling a lot of pizzas. Our GP is 75%. Domino's GP is probably nearer 90%, but we spend more on the ingredients. The cured meats and cheeses we use are British, it's our own dough made from British flour the day before and proved for 24 hours.
"We do takeaways too, which give us extra sales. People will telephone their order ahead or come and have a beer while they're waiting."
Starting the simple way
You don't have to splash out on an expensive pizza oven and create fancy toppings to get a pizza the action. As many pubs have already discovered, a back-bar pizza operation can work nicely in a wet-
led business and go some way to substituting for the lack of a kitchen.
"Pizzas are a really simple and profitable solution — straight from the freezer, to the oven, to the customer," says Alan Todd, catering development manager at Punch Taverns. If you
have a combination microwave or domestic oven you just need to buy the pizzas, boxes and serving equipment to get an offer off the ground. Suppliers are offering some great package deals."
Chicago Town, available through Brakes for around
£400, is a complete package
that includes convection oven, pizza cutter, pizza shovel, chopping board, digital temperature probe, two cases
of pizzas plus point-of-sale.
By selling the resulting