Pizza Express will reopen its significantly reduced U.K. restaurant estate with one of the hallmarks that contributed to its downfall: The discount offer. After closing over 90 restaurants and laying off over 1,000 workers in 2020, it will resume its role as the chain of dough balls and dates with the lure of free beer when restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars reopen inside on 17 May. According to managing director Zoe Bowley, “the ovens are fired up, the drinks are chilling and we can’t wait to see everyone.”
While the group cited “the impact of the global pandemic” as the reason for the closures and resultant job losses, as with so many of the casual dining chains that have shed restaurants like snakes shed skin during the crisis, the pandemic is in reality the pin that burst a bubble of private equity debt and over-saturation.
Pizza Express spent much of 2019 staving off rumours of imminent closure, while also navigating its position as an alibi at the centre of a sex trafficking scandal around one Prince Andrew. But its accumulated £1.1 billion debt pile — accrued by a series of private equity acquisitions that prioritised rapid expansion in order to leverage a sale, and in turn, a new acquisition — proved too much shortly after restaurants were first shut down in March 2020.
Most recently, Chinese investment firm Hony Capital paid £900 million for it in 2014, and, back in 2019, loaned its purchase £80 million to cut a small hole out of its debt and fill it with money, just like one of its Leggera pizzas. The pandemic’s impact was so severe that it had to relinquish ownership, barring the chain’s presence in China, as part of debt-for-equity deal that wrote off over £300 million but still bet on a brighter future than the past 28 years — pandemic or no pandemic — since late founder Sir Peter Boizot took it public in 1993.
That’s not an unfamiliar narrative in the chain world; the likes of Byron, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and others have gone down the same path and suffered. But they don’t have the group’s strangely resilient ace in the hole: Pizza Express’s seemingly immovable place in Britain’s restaurant psyche. Every time it flirted with mortal peril, there was 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. Some of that omnipresence, though, came from voucher schemes and discounting that both brought in good will and sucked out money, leaving that debt leveraging as the only route to expansion. While a free beer on reopening is not the same as near permanent 2-for-1 vouchers, the group’s resilience is set to be tested again.