Interview with an Innovator

Pizza Pilgrims’ Thom and James Elliot: ‘Menus the size of posters are why some of the larger chains are having difficulty’

The brothers talk about their new City location, how street food made it okay for restaurants to just do one thing and why pizza is the ultimate comfort eat.

19 October 2018
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Eliots on Paper – CV

  • Started selling pizza out of a stall in Soho in 2012, coming into the food industry with almost no experience
  • Opened the first permanent Pizza Pilgrims location just over a year later
  • Their brand now has nine locations (eight in London, one in Oxford), with a further site scheduled for London Bridge in November

In the space of only six years, Pizza Pilgrims founders Thom and James Eliot have turned their street truck concept into a successful restaurant chain. Starting up in 2012, just as Soho’s street food revolution began, the brothers say they were "definitely in the right place at the right time”.

The siblings put their success down to resilience in the early days. “We were there every day. Rainy Monday? We were there. If we’d only been there on a Thursday, by definition it would have taken five times longer to make an impact.”

In the years since, Pizza Pilgrims has become one of London’s best-known and well-loved independent pizzerias. Classic Neapolitan pizza (“a 200 year old recipe, it leans on Italian southern Bella Vita style”) is served in playful restaurants inspired by pop culture.

Here, they talk to Food Spark about keeping their menu concise and why British mozzarella just can’t compete with its Italian forefathers. 

Our street food was a response to the recession. People were looking to quit their jobs or be made redundant and go into business around 2011. It was similar for our parents in the early nineties after that recession. They started a pub, a brewery-led boozer-cum-gastro pub. It’s where we grew up.

Growing up we were always in the kitchen. You end up doing what your parents do: it’s in your blood. Our mum is equally proud and disappointed that we’ve ended up in the same department as her! It’s an amazing industry but it’s a hard industry.

We started the street food van with no knowledge of the industry. We just had this pitch with an oven in the back. We thought it’d be fun, but we never thought of it as a career. We thought of it as a stepping stone to a job in food. Before the street food boom, we were one of two food traders on that market in the middle of Soho, paying £10 a day rent to the council. It was unbelievable from a commercial point of view.

Russell Norman from Polpo used to buy pizza from us a lot. One time when he came, we asked if we could take him for coffee and chat about opening a restaurant. He invited us to look at a site which was too small for him on Dean Street. He said ‘come and have a look’ and that became our first restaurant.

Our advice? Pay the right rent to get a spot that is in town. At the point when we first opened, we hadn’t even thought about service or uniform. Those things have slowly but surely found a way into our restaurants since.

The menu in our restaurants is street food inspired. We keep the menu really short, which is a big part of street food. We have 11 pizzas on the menu, but just pizza. If you start doing salads and pastas, before you know it you’re an Italian restaurant with a pizza section. I think menus the size of posters are why some of the larger chains are having difficulty. There’s too many things on the menu and it isn’t focussed. There’s no way you can do it all brilliantly.

Street food made it okay for the restaurant scene to just do one thing. I think in the past people were a bit nervous that people wouldn’t book large dinners, because what if someone doesn’t like pizza?

At our new opening in the City, we have an entirely new menu. One of the things a good chain should do is do what they do really well, and resist the temptation to do too much change and innovation, because then you run a cropper and you go wrong.

People want to know where their food comes from. In the beginning, we gravitated towards Neapolitan pizza: it’s a 200-year-old recipe, it leans on Italian southern Bella Vita style, rather than rock and roll. Pizza is such a great product because it’s a comfort food.

Trends are one of the most dangerous things in the London food scene. We make sure what we do is fun, not zeitgeist-y, and inclusive, not exclusive. We’ve always wanted to be the kind of place you could bring your gran.

I don’t feel like this is junk food, this is comfort food. It’s not greasy, you don’t feel like hell after you’ve eaten it. Pizza is also the most accessible food for all.

It was a total accident that half our menu is vegetarian. Our margherita is still our most popular pizza…and the one we haven’t ever touched.

Humanity and pizza are absolutely connected. If your boyfriend leaves you or you’ve had a sh*t time at work, pizza is the thing you turn to. You don’t turn to burgers or burritos. Pizza is all over pop culture – Home Alone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – and Dominoes even sponsored The Simpsons. You even see t-shirts saying ‘pizza is my boyfriend!’

The big hitters in pizza are tomato, cheese, flour – we get all of those three from Italy. We go three times a year to work with them. At the moment we’re working on the supply chain to get it here quicker. With mozzarella, the faster we can get it here the better.

In terms of most interesting ingredients, we’ve got two types of amazing pepperoni from Cannon & Cannon at the moment, and Mike’s Hot Honey from New York, a spicy honey, is great.

There’s a couple of UK mozzarella producers, but the quality isn’t there yet. We can’t see what isn’t right yet, but it’s chalk and cheese in comparison. It’s good but it’s not there yet. However, it’d be great in terms of reducing food miles.

In terms of the design, our restaurants are supposed to be fun, rather than overtly cool. It’s Donkey Kong, Mario, that kind of thing on the walls. The rest of our look is street food inspired: shipping pallets and upcycled tomato tins, which makes the restaurant feel relaxed rather than a straight restaurant experience.

Remember that relaxed can’t be slack. It’s professional but chilled; we’re trying to create a house party feeling. It’s not formal but it’s genuine, and we want people to have a good time.

We’ve been thinking a lot about employment. We’re trying something new at this [City] site by having no double shifts. We were initially looking at things like private health care, but a lot of our team fall into the millennial bracket of experience led. So perhaps getting a PlayStation is better than a pension for some of them – we’re figuring it all out at the moment.

If you recommend something the company adopts, you get a payment incentive. We’ve always been a ‘promote from within’ company and we’re developing a big development platform so waiters can become restaurant managers. And we’re developing a pizza academy.

Hopefully. the connotations about what a chain is can change a little bit. All the bad connotations of a chain have come from when a parent company is owned by a fund and it becomes a profit hub. This is technically a chain, but I’d say you can tell the passion is still there for people like us, Honest Burger and Patty & Bun.

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