Troubled pizza chain Pizza Express will reopen 150 restaurants by 6 August, using the lure of free dough balls with every main course — a pizza, perhaps? — to entice diners in. It will also take part in the “eat out to help out” discount voucher scheme introduced by the government, reminiscent of the chain’s own heavy discount vouchers. It might as well be 2005. Is that Jamie Cullum on the speakers?
Except, it is actually 2020, and Pizza Express has been sitting on an increasingly ticking time bomb of private equity saddled debts and fading reputations for years. While it has managed to avoid restructuring and closing restaurants for longer than many of the Italian chains that would not exist without it, it has done so while being supported by debt, after debt, after debt, layering up private equity acquisitions like toppings on a Romana; a fate that has already hastened the shredding of Cafe Rouge, Bella Italia, and Frankie and Benny’s, at the cost of 5,000 people’s jobs. Right now, its debts are at £1.1 billion, £450 million of which are loans from current owner Hony Capital, rendered worthless by the rest of the debt.
Every time Pizza Express flirts with mortal peril, there is an outpouring of preemptive grief, with its omnipresent blue-and-white branding, Sloppy Guiseppes, and yes, dough balls baked in to high street restaurant-going through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the years before a 2008 recession that both made it easier for better restaurants than Pizza Express to open more cheaply and highlighted the importance of affordable, once good chains. Some of that omnipresence, though, came from voucher schemes and discounting that both brought in good will and sucked out money, with the deficit now so vast — and so compounded by predatory private equity buyers — that offering free doughballs and opening a third of its estate in a time of crisis feels like a plaster on an open wound. The chain is yet to comment on reports it could close 75 of its 470 restaurants in the near future; for now it’s banking on goodwill once again.