Business is booming.

My First Million: Thom Elliot, co-founder, Pizza Pilgrims

Thom Elliot, 39, and his brother James, 37, co-founded Pizza Pilgrims in March 2012, selling pizzas at Berwick Street market in London’s Soho soon after street food became popular. From turnover of £110,000 in 2013, sales in the year ending June 2022 were £21mn. 

Disillusioned with their careers — Thom in advertising, James in TV production — the brothers bought a Piaggio Ape (tuk-tuk) and spent a month on a “pilgrimage” driving around Italy, researching pizzas, ingredients and flavours. They installed a pizza oven in the vehicle and used it as a market stall.

Today, the entrepreneurs have 20 pizzerias in London, and four outside the capital, in Nottingham, Cambridge, Oxford and Brighton. With its “pizza base” on Carnaby Street, Pizza Pilgrims employs 480 people.

Both brothers go by the title “co-founder”, but Thom Elliott describes himself as “the more numerate” of the duo.


Born: Manchester, August 21, 1983

Education: 1997-2002: Radley College, Oxfordshire

2003-06: Oxford university, MSc Experimental Psychology

Career: 2002-03: Worked in the bar in his mother’s pub, Dorset.

2006-09: Account executive at advertising agency TBWA. Two years on McDonald’s account.

2009-11: Social media planner for advertising company, the Engine Group

2012: Launched Pizza Pilgrims with his brother James

Lives: Hove, East Sussex, with wife Jemma (who works for Asian restaurant chain Dishoom) and children Jackson, nine, and Sadie, seven.

Did you think you would get to where you are?
We had absolutely no idea we would get to where we are. Our initial target was a £100,000 turnover. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer. I went into advertising because it felt like a real career, and I did not have to wear a proper suit. From the moment I started in the workplace I wanted to do things my way. For me it never really worked out having a boss.

My brother believes in rolling up his sleeves and getting stuck in, but I am more analytical and tentative. I am not a risk taker.

James and I started out using a Barclaycard with a £10,000 limit. With the coming of street food, we realised you could build a brand and create quality dishes with almost no capital outlay. A year later, 15 investors each put in £10,000, and from 2016 we attracted higher but still-modest sums from equity investors.

Did the coronavirus pandemic affect your business?
It was cataclysmic. We went from our busiest week in February 2020 to zero turnover the next month. Everyone but the managing director and finance director was on furlough.

Then my brother came up with the idea of selling Pizza in the Post, because everyone was stuck at home. We had closed in March and by early April we decided to open our pizzeria in Victoria to Deliveroo. The other 14 were closed.

We made up pizza kits with two dough balls, tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil, parmesan and flour. We put 100 kits up for sale on Instagram on a Wednesday, and they went within one minute. The next day we put up another 100. They went within 20 seconds.

On the Friday we made up 1,100 kits and sold them in 45 minutes. They cost £25 and were enough for two people.

Nine months later we were selling 10,000 kits a week. Some weeks we were almost turning over more than the pizzerias in 2019. The strategy captured the moment and saved the company. It meant we had continuous cash flow. We were also able to un-furlough more than a hundred staff, almost a third of our workforce.

Have you found it difficult to recruit staff in recent months?
Recruitment has never been harder, because of Brexit and people wanting to work from home. We often find staff through word of mouth, and applicants knowing that people usually stay here for a while. Compared with 2019, we get 30 to 40 per cent fewer applicants per job. With the rising cost of living, people focus on pay for the here and now, rather than any career prospects.

Part of our ethos is to make sure the people we have want to stay. If you can stop them from leaving the company, you recruit fewer people. We have employed a chef engagement ambassador, whose job is to make sure our 153 chefs are content. 

Will increased energy bills impact your business?
We were very lucky. In 2021 I encouraged the business to move to sustainable energy contracts, with carbon-neutral gas and electricity. At the time it looked like we were spending more just to be sustainable, but there is an upside. We fixed that price at the end of 2021 for four years.

When we have opened new sites, we have had to take out new energy contracts, costing double or treble. We can cope with it — just — because we are thinking long term and assume that prices will have to come down. 

Was your first £1mn profit a major milestone?
The business reached this milestone in June 2022. We never had a target in mind because any profits have always been reinvested into the company. It was undoubtedly a satisfying moment after the existential experience of Covid to know that we were still able to move forward.

What was the most challenging period of your career?
Definitely Covid, especially the last two weeks of March 2020. When Boris Johnson [then prime minister] said no one should be going to restaurants, bars or nightclubs, our business stopped overnight, and there was no support package in place.

About seven or 10 days later, we were told we had to close. I remember myself, James, and our senior team members on a Zoom call, drinking vodka, beer and wine, and crying as Rishi Sunak [then the chancellor] announced the furlough. At least it meant we did not have to let anyone go.

We had to transition our business into a completely different skill set. After six months we moved to a dedicated facility in Herne Hill to produce postal pizza kits at volume. It was not easy to switch from looking at restaurants to industrial units.

What did you have to sacrifice to start the business?
Two big things. One was a steady salary. The first month when you don’t get a pay packet is terrifying. Starting the business was all consuming and I had little time with my wife. Jemma had to bear the brunt of hardly seeing me and supported us with her full-time marketing job. We lived frugally, and for 18 months only took £100 a week — but ate a lot of pizza. 

What was your best preparation for business?
My parents had run pubs since I was six years old. From an early age I was chatting with different people and listening to their versions of the world. The experience of serving people was a huge lesson in life. I learned how to be a team player and deal with difficult customers.

What is your basic business philosophy?
Our mission is to make the world a happier place, one pizza at a time. Our values are simple. Be yourself, push yourself, enjoy yourself and respect others. It is about creating an environment where people have the autonomy to make their own decisions.  

Do you want to carry on till you drop?
I want to be proud of Pizza Pilgrims forever. Success for me is not connected to the scale of the business. It is about providing quality and being sustainable. We have just applied for B-Corp status [showing commitment to environmental and governance principles]. It takes about a year to gain acceptance. We would like to open more pizzerias slowly, across the country. Unless you grow you cannot make opportunities for people to advance.

In June this year we went on a fun tour of Naples to celebrate our tenth birthday, meeting local suppliers and pizza chefs. We designed a Vespa with a pizza oven backbox and a sidecar. It must be the world’s smallest pizzeria. 

Have you made any pension provision?
I contributed a small amount at the two advertising firms I worked for. But I did not earn much and at 25 I wanted to spend my pay packet on beer not a pension. I was 32 when I started my pension with Pizza Pilgrims, in 2015, paying in £50 a month.

Do you believe in giving something back to the community?
We have done a lot of projects with local schools and colleges, teaching young people the “business of running a restaurant”. Within the pizzerias, our regional sites donate 50p for each of our monthly special pizza sold to a local charity. We have supported the Samaritans Central London in various ways, from free pizzas for their team, to charity bikes rides and financial help. 

Do you believe in leaving everything to your family?
I made my first will in July. I am a bit controversial. I’m of the opinion that when you die any money you have not spent should go to the state. The next generation should not rely on inheritance.

I will help my kids with their education and housing if I can. When I am not here, I don’t think they should enjoy wealth they have not had to work for. 

What do you consider as an indulgence?
Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been to many of his gigs, as he is an incredible performer. I have already seen him live three times this summer. In Hyde Park this July I paid £400 for the top ticket.

Source link

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.