Gig economy? Pizza Express dishes up live music to beat restaurant blues

Pizza Express is converting up to 50 restaurants into live entertainment venues after appearances from artists such as Goldie and Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp at existing outlets proved successful with diners.

The chain is fighting back against competition from the likes of Franco Manca as well as the switch to takeaways via the likes of Deliveroo, in a tough business environment that has led a string of rivals in the casual dining sector to close restaurants.

Zoe Bowley, managing director of Pizza Express, said the company has already tested customers’ appetite for live music by revamping a site in central Birmingham in late 2016 and then making a significant investment at an outlet in Holborn in central London. Holborn hosted “Audience with” events with Goldie and Martin Kemp in 2017 and singer Gareth Gates performed there this weekend, while jazz-funk band Shakatak plays the Birmingham venue next month.

“It’s a cluttered market so what’s critical is to remain differentiated,” said Bowley. “The sector has moved on and everybody has upped their game but is casual dining a busted flush? Absolutely it isn’t. Innovation is keeping the industry going.”

The Pizza Express Live venues will have dedicated performance spaces similar to the group’s flagship Dean Street Jazz Club site which has been a music venue since 1976 hosting a string of names from Jamie Cullum and Benny Carter to Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones and Cybill Shepherd.

The company is now reviewing all its sites with multiple floors to decide how many might be viable as a music venue.

Acoustic live music nights, which Pizza Express currently operates in just over 20 restaurants, are also being expanded.

Live music is a part of Pizza Express’s history. Its founder, Peter Boizot, was a jazz lover hosting music from the 1970s at his former venue Pizza on the Park near Hyde Park in London which closed in 2010 and Kettner’s in Soho as well as Dean Street. The group currently has five live venues including one in Maidstone, which has hosted music for 20 years, and the Pheasantry in Chelsea, London.

The new venues may not necessarily host jazz, however. Birmingham and Holborn have put on comedy nights and a wide variety of acts including Spandau Ballet star Martin Kemp. “We sold a lot of [low calorie] Leggera pizzas and prosecco,” says Bowley. She said well-known names such as Kemp, and former footballer-turned pundit Paul Merson, often brought with them a large social media following which ensured a packed venue.

The group, which already has 477 restaurants in the UK, plans five new restaurants this year and Bowley said there were no plans for major closures. However, the company did sell off its Firezza delivery-based business late last year, less than two years after acquiring it, and several of those outlets have since closed.

“Christmas trading was particularly strong and January was slightly ahead of of expectations. We have been outperforming the market in the last quarter,” she said.

Pizza Express is rolling out its music plans at a time of flux for the restaurant trade. Jamie’s Italian is closing 12 branches and is £71.5m in debt, the Italian eatery Strada recently shut a third of its restaurants while rival Prezzo is now looking at restructuring. It’s part of a casual dining crunch that has also seen the planned closure of almost a third of the Byron burger chain while the five-strong Square Pie group in London and Jamie Oliver’s Piccadilly barbecue restaurant, Barbecoa, have both gone into administration.