“I’m really fussy, but I do really like food,” declares Jane Treasure, the food and beverage director at PizzaExpress. It’s not something you would expect to hear from someone who heads up menu development for the largest casual dining chain in the UK.
“I think in my job it’s quite good, because I don’t really think about what I want, I think about what customers want,” she explains. “As I’m so fussy, it’s good to think about what is beyond me.”
Treasure says that 2020 is going to be big for PizzaExpress, with more food and drink innovation landing than ever before. More adventurous toppings will be rolling out, playing with melding spicy and sweet, along with different chillies and honey infusions.
Not a fan of the big reveal of a new product or dish, Treasure believes the innovation team shouldn’t sit in a silo. Instead, she likes people from across the company to come on the journey, throwing in ideas and suggestions that will ultimately make for a better meal.
Sitting down with Food Spark at PizzaExpress’ Global Innovation Centre, which opened earlier this year, she reveals her approach to innovation, what’s new to menus and NPD for the retail market.
I think it’s really important to innovate for products that people want, being really strict about what you are solving before you start innovating, so you don’t get into the vanity project world. Every time it’s what are we solving for the customer? What do they want? Is it a new occasion? Is it recipes, flavours they are missing? A flavour that is going to give them another reason to come? Or a product they are missing so they are not coming with their friends?
We have innovation sessions where we will have restaurant managers, back of house people, front of house people; we will have the board, ops managers, our team, because everyone’s ideas are valid. I’m not precious where the idea comes from.
I’m really proud of some of the new toppings we’ve got coming and that is definitely a team effort. I think what I identified quite early on in my PizzaExpress career was that the way we were choosing toppings was not ideal. It was quite personal to the people that were in the room and obviously that’s just the people in the room. Also, we weren’t really pushing the boundaries as much as we should, it was quite safe, and as a result the mix was just cannibalising.
The Vegan Mezze [pizza] is one actually that always makes me smile as I remember the conversations that took place to get there. It was quite the departure from traditional PizzaExpress. It was a vegan product but it had no dairy alternatives on it, so it was quite a step change from the vegan innovation a lot of people use.
Obviously vegan is big. It’s big everywhere, it will continue to be big. I think we are challenging ourselves to be more innovative with vegan. It’s a difficult one for us because half of our menu is vegetarian so we’re not a traditional meat-based [chain] – we are not like a burger chain where your hero product is a meat product. So there is an authentic genuineness that you need to be careful with... So what we have seen is our most successful products in that area have been genuinely vegan, rather than putting in alternatives. I mean we do use the vegan mozzarella alternative, but things like the Vegan Mezze was really good – it was roasted vegetables, really good spicing, hummus to get some fat into the product, green salad, rocket.
At completely the other end, indulgence isn’t going anywhere. Meat indulgence is still strong, like Calabrese sausage and the nduja. It’s all on there and it’s all delicious.
We have got two calzones coming through: [one] with nduja finished with pancetta – a cheesy, meaty calzone – and then its sister/brother is a lovely vegan [option], full of vegetables, served with salad and dressings.
I do find everything tastes better with nduja at the moment, if you’re a meat eater. These smoky, chilli, spicy flavours do well for us.
I think you are going to continue to see flavours pushing out and more niche flavours, and you’re starting to see things like the use of turmeric, which is almost a bit mainstream now in coffees, but where do those sorts of ingredients start to pop up? And things like infusions into honey and how we can take those ingredients further and be more interesting, and different flavours and chillies.
What we are really starting to do is experiment with much more interesting flavours and saucing – that trend is coming through, so different spicing, sweet and spice together. Those more adventurous flavours are definitely coming through in how we work sweet and spice with meat or cheese.
We have chocolate fondant coming back for the winter, so we’ve got a great product, much improved, much easier for teams.
We’ve got carbonara coming back and we’ve got a new funghi di bosco, which came on for the summer, which we will keep on.
We have introduced prawns in the last 18 months. We have much more focus on chicken wings and making them appropriate for PizzaExpress. We now have halloumi that’s on the menu, but again with a twist that is appropriate for PizzaExpress.
What’s most popular is the margherita, which is happy and sad, because it’s a great margherita. My innovation challenge is: what’s the next margherita? We have to think big enough. I want to find the next margherita, a pizza that is as popular in addition to margherita sales, not instead of margherita sales.
We are definitely seeing in the market pasta trends from Italy that are much more pared down, much more letting two or three ingredients really showcase, and that’s starting to influence our work.
I think you are going to start to see much more focus on to the regionality [of Italy]. I think you will start to see people going narrower and deeper, and that’s going to be quite interesting to watch. So you go much more right into Sicily or Palma, going right down into the whole experience – and not just the food but the service style, the plates, the crockery, the decor style.
[Za] landed brilliantly and that was a big innovation departure really requiring focus. I think there is a big appetite for customers to be enjoying slices of pizza on-the-go and we are definitely seeing that.
We have probably done more NPD this year [in retail], certainly since I’ve joined... We’ve had new packaging across the full range. What’s in the box is also different: we’ve got a whole new range of toppings and they’re selling really well... That’s really inspired by the restaurant recipes... every pizza that we sell in retail has at some point been on a restaurant menu. We’ve got new dressings out that are low fat or fat free and light dressings.
I think the pace of trends is going to speed up. I think it’s almost like you’ve got to know what your trend is now, what your trend is in three months’ time and then have your eye on what’s coming in six months’ time. Whereas in my early days it was like, what’s now, what’s coming next year, what’s coming the year after?
Our international businesses, they are moving at a much higher pace than the UK. We need to prepare for that... How are we physically going to be able to do that in the supply chain... and how are we going to adapt our processes? The trend of the pace of change, and the ingredients that customers expect to see, and the flavours that they expect to start seeing, it’s all going to speed up.
Trying to make sure that the food doesn’t take itself too seriously – I do think that is a trend. It needs to be fun, you need to want to eat it, it needs to make you smile.
I think anything that isn’t genuine will start to get called out quicker... I think you’re starting to see a bit of a backlash with some of these cookery books coming out saying: ‘I’m going to solve all your problems that you basically don’t know that you’ve got by the way’… I think people are starting to say:‘I want some credibility in my claims.’ So they are quite happy to go with a trend if they can see some credibility. I think with faddiness, customers are starting to find it irritating and see through it.
[New products] need to be interesting, they need to catch people’s eye, they need to notice it, they need to want to pick it up and they need to want to eat it at the price you want to sell it. If you get all of that, then it will be successful, but that’s a lot harder than how I’ve made it sound. If they don’t want to order it, it doesn’t matter how delicious it is; if they think it sounds amazing and they’re disappointed, they’re not going to order it again; if it is £25 when they think it should be £5, they are not going to order it.
There are a lot of meat alternatives coming through from Asian markets that we sell on some of our Asian menus that would not be familiar to our UK consumers, but they do very well on our Asian menus in Singapore, China and Hong Kong.
I think you are getting the Asian trends, but I think they are very UK-fied. It’s going to be interesting to see how they develop into being much more genuine – you are starting to see a bit of it coming over.
I think you are getting the Californian healthy-eating trend, the rice bowls, salad bowls, smoothie bowls. I think that’s interesting. I would say the sunshine foods will get bigger and I think that also lends itself to the vegan trend as well – it all kinda fits together.
There is a lot going on nutritionally [at PizzaExpress]. We swapped hummus in and garlic butter out for piccolo dough balls. Now if they want garlic butter, of course they can have garlic butter, but the default position is hummus, which has got much less sat fat.
I think the whole market needs to be planning for what [teenagers]will want. As it’s not that far away when they are going to be spending money, they are going to be going out as valid consumers on their own in five or six years.