Beloved chain of dough balls and dates Pizza Express will close another 23 restaurants in the U.K., according to Big Hospitality. Further closures could be on the way, but as it stands chain will have closed 97 restaurants since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The closures in autumn 2020 cost over 1,100 workers their jobs, with nine of the affected sites in London — one of them the Wardour Street restaurant in Soho that started it all in 1965. By then, the chain had amassed over £1.1 billion in debt; had staved off rumours of closure and bad jokes about folding into Calzone Express; and had seen its Woking restaurant become the alibi at the centre of a global sex trafficking case thanks to Prince Andrew.
The debt pile had been building over 27 years of private equity acquisitions, since late founder Sir Peter Boizot took it public in 1993. Its owner at the time of the debt crisis, Hony Capital, had paid £900 million for the group in 2014, and what the novel coronavirus pandemic did was finally push the chain’s sale value below its external debt. The only way out was for Hony to exit, and for Pizza Express to close a lot of restaurants and cut a debt-for-equity deal with shareholders on the risky promise that it would lead to a brighter future. Its 2019 accounts revealed that, even before the novel coronavirus hit U.K. restaurants, it was already making an annual loss of £350 million.
Pizza Express is far from the only casual dining chain to see a private equity expansion bubble burst under the pin of a pandemic: Bella Italia, Cafe Rouge, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron Burger, and Carluccio’s have all met similar fates. But none of those are Pizza Express, the high priest of high street restaurant-going through the 1990s and into the early 2000s — the years before a 2008 recession that made it easier for better restaurants than Pizza Express to open more cheaply. Nowhere lives rent-free in Britain’s collective dining consciousness like Pizza Express; its high streets aren’t quite so charitable.