Caterer Interview: Julie MacDonald

13 December 2010
Caterer Interview: Julie MacDonald

Since October PizzaExpress has been trialling a new concept called the Living Lab in Richmond. It features a radical new design, new recruitment and training methods and a "kiosk" serving breakfast and coffee. Neil Gerrard talks to HR director Julie MacDonald, a former waitress at the firm, who was instrumental in the relaunch

Why did PizzaExpress decide it needed to overhaul its restaurants?

We are 45 years old and rather large. There are a lot of new restaurant businesses, such as Jamie's Italian, opening and doing some amazing things. When PizzaExpress founder Peter Boizot started he was an incredibly creative man and he did it because he loved pizza. What he created with Enzo Apicella, the designer, was very special. Our restaurants now are not cookie cutter but as we had gone along we had probably lost our edge on being a leader.

So what is the Living Lab?

Originally it started as a design project. But then we realised this was an opportunity. We are evolving the brand to ensure that we last the next 45 years. We realised the three main elements were design, food and then the people and service. You can have a beautiful building but if the people aren't right then it doesn't make any difference. The idea of the Living Lab was to be brave and try things. It is not all going to work but let's do as much as we can and see what works and go from there.

Starting with the design, how have you changed things?

The acoustics are probably one of the biggest elements of the design. We get a lot of complaints that you can't hear well in a PizzaExpress because of the noise. That is not conducive to great conversation and being sociable. So we brought in an acoustics specialist. There are acoustic panels on the ceiling and acoustic domes above the tables. We also have iPod docks at the tables so you can listen to your music but the people on the next table to you can't hear it. We also brought the kitchen out into the centre because I think PizzaExpress had forgotten how to be proud of its pizzas. And we have what we call a "ribbon" running all the way around the restaurant.

You took charge of the changes in service and recruitment. Why did these need changing?

What we currently do when recruiting is, at best, to ask questions. But at worst, managers will just take someone who has walked through the door because they need someone. When PizzaExpress started it was all about great service. But we had fallen into that trap of being a really large organisation where consistency had suddenly become key. We told people how to behave and what to do - but when you are told, it lacks the passion and energy.

So how have you changed your recruitment?

We went out to attract a different type of person. We got 2,000 people applying for jobs and put them through a redesigned assessment centre. We ended up with a group of amazing people with personalities. But when it got to the training I had a lot of sleepless nights because I thought: "How am I going to train these people without telling them how to behave?" So we decided we would inspire them.

How did you inspire them?

We took them to Italy for two days to understand how passionate the Italians are about the quality of their food and how the dough in a pizzeria is absolutely key - they are so passionate about their dough and will do anything for customers. When we brought them back we decided to get them to create their own service journey using what they knew in Richmond and then they used some of the things our specialists had taught them.

Who were the specialists you got to help you?

We had Karl James, an actor and theatre director who specialises in dialogue and conversation training. What we wanted was for people to truly engage with customers - how they ask questions, how they described things, how they listened. The other specialist we brought in was Carrie Longton who owns Mumsnet. She encouraged staff to think what it was like to be a busy working mum and why mums behave in a certain way. She suggested tiny touches like offering to take their coffee over, opening the door for them, fetching a high chair.

What is the thinking behind the kiosk?

We wanted to be really good around mums and children but we also wanted to have the young people in the evenings. The problem was how do you do the two in one building? So we have extended our hours. The kiosk is to signal that we are open at earlier times of the day because a lot of people would simply assume that Pizza Express would not be open. We have someone in the kiosk who concentrates solely on coffee. We have also introduced things such as sandwiches and skinny grape cake which is designed by Liliana Tamberi, who works at Food Lab in Islington. It is open at 8.45am but we are looking at opening earlier.

And presumably the margins on breakfasts and cakes must be pretty good?

Not as good as the margins on our main menu. We did it more to get people in earlier rather than for profit, which is why we have also introduced Wi-Fi. It is obviously working because they had about 10 tables in this morning in Richmond.

Why did you choose Richmond?

We needed a big space (1,500sq m and 176 covers) to bring the kitchen out. We also wanted to choose a very successful restaurant to prove that we could still get more out of our businesses. The demographic suited us. There are a lot of families but also a lot of young people. Our next ones will be a bit more into the West End.

How did the customers react?

We get almost 200 opinion cards a week. The majority are positive. We are getting a small minority which are negative. The majority that are negative are around the design. Occasionally you get a service one. We know the design is polarising. There are some people that just like it the old way.

How have the changes affected sales?

I can't talk about detailed figures but we are well into double-digit growth.

How long will you spend evaluating this place and deciding which bits work and which don't?

We're there now already. Our marketing director, Emma Woods, and I have taken our presentation to the board to say what we think we should take forward. We instantly knew the chefs worked, that the recruitment worked, the training, a lot of the food, and the cakes. We put holes in the table for black pepper but we know we need to change these because people can't get their plates on the table properly. The kitchen arrangement didn't work here and is being redesigned. But we don't want to become cookie cutter. We wouldn't just take Richmond and put it elsewhere. We are going to change things depending on which PizzaExpress we go into.

But you are going to roll this out across the entire estate of 380-odd restaurants?

Yes. How quickly is up for question at the moment. We will probably roll out certain elements. We don't know yet.

How much have you had to invest in this place?

We don't give actual figures but it's a lot. I would say in the high hundreds of thousands. But it is definitely more than your average refurbishment. We went to do something different here and it is exciting. We were in a recession when most people cut their labour and costs. We went out and spent the biggest amount of money we have ever spent on a refurb. We tried something new and we were very open about the fact that it was not all going to work.

Can you afford to take all of your 10,000 staff out to Italy to inspire them?

Probably not. That's the big question. But I am going to see if we can bring a bit of Italy here.

How did you start off working for PizzaExpress?

I joined in 1994. Instead of doing my degree I decided I wanted to backpack around the world. I ended up by accident in Cambridge and applied for a job as a waitress to save for my next trip. I never left.

People 1st has warned that women leaving hospitality costs the industry £2.8b. How can it encourage more women to stay and reach the sort of level that you have got to?

If you take people like me who worked from the bottom, the hours that you work are quite unsociable. I don't think the hours once you get to director level are different from anywhere else - you give your life. And that is probably the biggest problem - how women juggle family and work. You have to be flexible. Talk to people. Don't just expect them to go on maternity leave and come back. We need to make sure we give them proper inductions when they come back and keep in contact all the time they are away. The biggest mistake managers can make is not listening. And I will say - and I don't want this to come across as sexist - but male bosses don't always think about it. We are quite successful at it because we have a lot of returning mums.


What do you do to relax? I just did the New York marathon in 3 hours 54 minutes. I did it for Fairbridge (PizzaExpress charity). My husband did it with me, and two ops managers and a restaurant manager.

Favourite pizzas I have two. Calabrese (one of Franceso Mazzei's) and the Etna.

Drives I have a Mercedes SLK and an E350. I'm not a big car person but I do like Mercs.

Motto "Time never stops"

Kiosk menu

Mini morsos

  • Skinny grape cake £1.65
  • Liliana's jam tarts 85p(£2 for three to share)
  • Dough balls with Nutella £2.95

Late breakfast

  • Pitta pizza £3.15 (pancetta, tomato and rocket)
  • Dorset Cereals granola £2.45
  • Breakfast pizza £8.95

Pizza Express - key facts

  • Staff 10,000
  • Restaurants 380
  • Sales growth 6% in year to July 2010
  • Founded 1965
  • Founder Peter Boizot
  • Owners Bought in 2003 by TDR Capital and Capricorn Ventures. Merged with ASK Central to form Gondola Holdings in 2004.
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