In crust we trust – how Pizza Pilgrims transformed their renowned Neapolitan pizzas into a frying pan wonder
17 February 2021 - 9 min read
Those of you who read our last blog will know that the Rotaready Christmas party this year gave us the perfect excuse (not that we needed one) to try out some of our clients’ meal kits. But that left us intrigued about the story behind each of them, the journey they’ve been to get to where they are today and the advice they’d give other operators looking to introduce their own meal kit.
Last week I picked the brain of Pizza Pilgrims Co-Founder, Thom Elliot, on all things Pizza in the Post. Here’s where it all began, the challenges they’ve faced and an insight into the unique situations they’ve found themselves in…
What made you decide to introduce Pizza in the post – where did it all begin?
We made the decision to close our doors right at the beginning of the first lockdown. There was so much uncertainty and people were scared – including our team. So, even though we weren’t obliged to, we made the decisionto close all of our sites at the beginning of March 2020. Obviously this wasn’t a decision we took lightly, but our team came first!
After two weeks of endless Zoom quizzes, a number of our team reached their quiz quota and approached us to say that if we wanted to reopen, then they would be more than happy to come back to work.
We decided to reopen our site in Victoria which had opened just before lockdown. We were still in a rent-free period, so it was a natural choice. Initially we tried out Deliveroo – which did really well, but we needed something a little extra. Survival was the key player in our reopening. Yes we wanted to open, but if it was going to cost us more to be open than closed, then it wasn’t feasible. Our Victoria site had to make more money than we were paying out in order for us to continue.
So, we started to look into other revenue streams, when my brother James suggested an idea that we had toyed with 3-4 years ago. Whatif we could provide our customers with everything they need to make our pizzas at home? Previously this had been a retail idea, but being in the situation we were in made us think – could we send this through the post?
What challenges did you face when introducing Pizza in the Post?
One of our main challenges was the logistics of getting the ingredients to our customers via post. After a lot of research, we concluded it was feasible with enough ice packs and the correct packaging. Easier said than done. The first test we sent via post just ended up everywhere – it was chaos. But it didn’t put us off. We put our Blue Peter hats on and spent two weeks creating and testing different styles of packaging; sending different versions across the country via post. After numerous attempts, we slowly started to see our success rate creep up.
And then there was the ice, that’s been our number one challenge. With our particular product temperature is so important. In winter you have the issue of how to prove dough in such inconsistent and cold temperatures. And in the summer, you have the challenge of getting that dough out of the fridge and across the country, all whilst keeping it cold.
When we first started in the summer we bought all of these chest freezers and filled them up with what was essentially lots of bags of water. What we hadn’t anticipated was how long that quantity of the water would take to freeze, when all packed together. It took forever, we’re talking weeks. But now we’re on top of our ice game, with a walk-in freezer, it’s a different kettle of fish.
Another thing we found is that any change you make to Pizza in the Post, no matter how tiny, causes a butterfly effect. If we tweak just one thing in the product, something you never would have thought to be an issue, suddenly becomes a massive issue. We’ve learnt to test any changes rigorously before launching it – no matter how small the change.
The whole thing has been writhed with challenges. But we’ve learnt so much along the way and are still getting better all the time.
What has the uptake of Pizza in the Post been like? Was it what you expected?
The uptake was amazing and far exceeded our expectations! About 3-4 weeks after the initial idea at the start of lockdown, we put the first 50 kits up for sale on our website; expecting them to take at least a week to sell. We were absolutely stunned when they sold out in 20 seconds. So, we did the same the following day, and they sold just as quickly. In fact, in the time they were on the website (less than 60 seconds), we saw about 250 people try to buy one.
This led us to reassess the situation on day three and try to come up with a way of meeting the demand we were seeing. We were still building our boxes Blue Peter style, so there was no way we could significantly increase our cap of 50 orders a day. We decided to test something new and offer up 1,200 kits, but with no delivery date. Essentially allowing customers to order now and receive their pizza by an unknown date – whenever we could feasibly complete all of the orders. We didn’t expect anyone to go for it. Why would they want a pizza that arrived on an unknown date?
We were wrong, they all went in 50 minutes. It was our busiest hour of trading in the history of Pizza Pilgrims. We spent the next month fulfilling these orders. There were ice packs, wool cool packs and chest freezer deliveries left, right and centre.
Ever since then we’ve been trying to do it better. It’s been a long journey of trying to make the kits better and better; we’ve learnt a hell of a lot. One of the best things about all of this has been the rapport we’ve had with our customers. We were getting between 600 and 700 Instagram messages a day at the beginning – with photos and feedback on the pizzas they had made. It was an amazing moment. I don’t think we have ever connected with our customers more than in that six week period. Everyone wanted to go out for a pizza but couldn’t, they were bemused by the whole lockdown thing and we were one of just a couple of brands offering something like this. We even had Stormzy and Philip Schofield making our pizza kits.
We’ve done around 100,000 kits now and we’re still working every day to make it better. We’ve got new and more sustainable packaging coming out soon.
What operational changes did you have to make in order to execute the roll out of Pizza in the Post?
I mean all and everything; and we certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way. We managed to start Pizza in the Post at our site in Victoria; turning it into as much of a production facility as we possibly could. We were extremely lucky that there was an empty unit next door, which our landlord very kindly let us use. So we moved all of the furniture from our restaurant into there and turned Victoria into this rudimentary kit making facility, and just tried to make as many kits as we possibly could.
I’d say we were properly up and running as a production facility by the 1st May and spent a month or so getting our heads around that. And then June came around and we were thinking ‘okaaay, so we’re going to have to open this restaurant again, what do we do?’ We had 3 options really:
1. Keep Victoria open as our Pizza in the Post restaurant and don’t open it to customers – which I don’t think anyone wanted to do. We’re a restaurant business first and foremost, not reopening was out of the question.
2. Knock Pizza in the Post on the head – which felt like a really bad idea given the demand we’d had for it.
3. Find a proper facility to do it in…
I went to look at endless locations but none of them were what I wanted, they all needed a lot of love. But then by complete luck, one of our suppliers told us they had a spare unit that they were planning to clear out of and put on the market. The site had a huge walk in fridge for packing the kits and a huge walk in freezer for ice packs; it was like it had been sent straight from God. It was exactly what we needed, so we moved in there in early August.
Another thing that was brand new to us was the world of ecommerce. It’s amazing how many little things there are, that are issues in ecommerce but not in restaurants. Things that you don’t even think about. We chose to partner with Shopify when setting up our online shop and I’ve been continuously impressed. I find it amazing that someone like me, who has no previous experience, can have an ecommerce website built and live within a couple of hours. That very website has come on our journey with us. It’s now managed by a full-time developer, and able to do so much more than it could before; things I wouldn’t have even thought of.
How did you decide which pizzas to include and which to omit?
It was very easy, we just did margheritas for the first 6 months. It was beneficial that margherita is pretty much the starting point of any pizza. We went down the lines of rating customers’ pizzas based on which toppings they added!
We now have five different flavours and are about to launch gluten free. Some of our competitors have so many and I still ask myself how they’re doing that. I think committing to the pizza box packaging has made things harder for us. Every new recipe has to fit the layout. But I love that it arrives in a pizza box, I think that’s very much part of the experience and I wouldn’t change it.
Is there anything you’d do differently if you were to do it all over again?
No, it all just happened so quickly but I love how we just got on with it. Yes, we made a lot of mistakes but I think we were always going to.
It really has been an amazing journey, on which we’ve found ourselves in some surreal situations – the Zoom call with Boris Johnson and visit from himself and Rishi Sunak being up there.
What advice would you give to other hospitality businesses wanting to introduce meal kits?
Definitely go for it, it’s a very different experience that took all of us a while to get used to, but consumers now understand what it is now. Everyone loves hospitality and no one wants to see it fail. I think people saw Pizza in the Post as something great that they could get on board with and support.
As I’m sure is the case with any hospitality brand, we love having our customers in and being part of the fun part of their life. That’s what we exist to do, but it’s been impossible whilst closed. Introducing Pizza on the Post has enabled us to reach our customers at home and hopefully provide them with something more than they could have done themselves. That alone is worth far more than anything commercial.
Would you consider continuing to offer Pizza in the Post once you reopen?
Yes, I think we definitely would. We’re excited about what we can do with it, we’re just getting started really. I think there are a million exciting things we can do to enhance people’s experience with it. We’re very much committed to Pizza in the Post! We have the right facilities and a dedicated team on it now; it’s completely independent of our restaurants.
So many customers have told us how Pizza in the Post has given them the first 25 minutes without a scream from their kids in years. Having a 6 and a 4-year-old myself, I can vouch for that. I have no doubt it’ll take a dip when things reopen, but I really don’t think it’ll disappear.
No doubt we’ll look back at the last year and think ‘wow, that was a s#%! year’, because it was. But every cloud has a silver lining and Pizza in the Post has definitely been ours. We’re excited about the future of it.
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