Our latest Three Things podcast saw our host, Jamie Mitchell, sit down with Pizza Pilgrims’ Co-Founder, Thom Elliot to discuss the origins, purpose, and values behind his ever-growing pizza empire. You can listen to the podcast episode in full here, or read on to discover the highlights, below.
We’ve summarised the key takeaways from the episode, revealing the founding fathers’ passion for authenticity, their desire to bring happiness to their stakeholders, and the unique philosophy behind their policy on growth.
The problem to solve
The year is 2012. Thom Elliot and his brother, James, sit in their local pub, sipping lager as they bemoan the monotony of their 9 to 5s. Despite only recently securing a new job in advertising, Thom is already convinced his future lies elsewhere. James, a producer at the BBC, shares the same conviction, and the pair begin to riff about where they could divert their energies.
“Both our parents had run pubs our entire lives”, explained Thom, “so we had literally grown up above a pub. We had hospitality in our DNA.” And so they become enamoured with the idea of opening a pub together, a small, yet infinitely fulfilling slice of the English capital they can call their own. But before it can even get off the ground, their dream is dashed.
Thom Elliot’s CV //
2012-Present // Co-Founder – Pizza Pilgrims
2017-Present // Founder – Hungry Heart Events
2015-Present // Founder – Pococello
2012-2012 // Brand Marketing Manager – The Week Magazine
2011-2012 //Account Director – Leagas Delaney
“We didn’t have the capital or the experience to get the capital, but around that time we started seeing a version of food suddenly being taken to the streets in front of us”, Thom recalled. “These were genuine, premium brands and products being sold on the streets around Kings Cross, Peckham, and other places in London.”
After a closer look at the street-food explosion, the pair identify a significant gap in the market…pizza. “The pizza idea was absolutely just because no one else was doing it”, Thom admitted, but that is the truth of so many businesses’ beginnings. It’s a case of looking for a gap, a problem to be solved, and for Thom and his brother, the lack of pizza in the street food scene was that problem.
Their efforts to fill the pizza-shaped void would take them to the home of pizza itself, Naples, where they would learn not only how to make a good pizza themselves, but also gather an appreciation for Italian culinary culture as a whole. To listen to the story in Thom’s own words, tune into the podcast here.
Distinction from the competition
A major part of Pizza Pilgrims’ continued success can be attributed to their dedication to authenticity. “I think we are the closest to what Naples is doing as a specific city,” Thom claimed, and perhaps the most important aspect of that authenticity comes down to the raw ingredients they use. “We still use Caputo flour from the mill in Naples…we get our tomatoes from Italy…and we still get our pure latte mozzarella from somewhere based in Naples, too”, Thom shared. And yet, if you visit Pizza Pilgrims, you’ll notice a few options that don’t exactly scream authenticity, so how does he explain that?
“We’ve tried to bring in some other influences, like when you go to New York, for a bit more fun”, he admitted. “That has caused controversy, but the most controversial option we have is actually a special we have called the Americana, which has chips and frankfurters on it.” This is the point where you’d expect native Italians to become outraged, but you’d be wrong. “It’s probably the most legit Neapolitan pizza there is”, Thom claimed. “Every single kid in Naples is brought up on it, so all of our Neapolitan chefs are in raptures that we’re serving it!”
The controversy has stemmed from people who think they know what authentic Italian food is, but really, they don’t have a clue. “Despite only existing for less than a hundred years, Italy has managed to weave a billion different food cultures into one to create this global image”, Thom explained. It’s a brand, one of the most powerful and pervasive brands in the world.
The pursuit of happiness
Your brand isn’t just how your customers perceive your business. It’s how excited and engaged they are, how likely they are to recommend you or your products to their friends and family, and boosting that likelihood can be achieved in a number of ways.
Aron Gelbard of Bloom & Wild, for instance, revealed on a previous podcast episode that an insatiable obsession with his customers was responsible for his brand’s success. Thom’s obsession, on the other hand, is with happiness. “Our aim is to leave everyone we engage with happier than when we found them,” he explained, “whether that’s our customers, teams, suppliers, or partners.”
Everything Pizza Pilgrims does is geared towards making people happy, but it begins with their team. “It’s about setting up the right structures, goals, and long-term solutions to pursue happiness in your career with us.” Thom clarified. The reasons behind this obsession can be explained by the ‘Service Profit Chain’ theory, which stipulates that happiness amongst your team ultimately leads to customer satisfaction and loyalty, the key drivers of revenue and profit. So how exactly does Pizza Pilgrims keep its teams happy?
Paying staff fairly obviously helps, but at the top of Pizza Pilgrims’ list is their culture of autonomy, where employees are empowered to use their own initiative to improve customer experience. “Super Kind Bombs”, for example – fun, tailor-made gestures that employees can add to a meal to delight customers – are a prime example of this and are encouraged as much as possible, with each store having a target of Super Kind Bombs to hit each week.
But that’s just part of a holistic effort to grow a culture where staff have the freedom to take risks to improve customer’s experience. “It’s a case of trying to make sure that we’re not cluttering things up for people just for the sake of it”, Thom explained. “You don’t need to tell people how to do the most obvious stuff; you need to trust them a bit, and we try to do that across everything.”
One of the most interesting initiatives Pizza Pilgrims has set up as part of this mission is their Hospitality Heroes programme, which helps staff bridge the gap to management. “These are people who are great at their jobs but aren’t yet ready for management”, Thom explained. “You get a little more pay, some more responsibility, and you join a group called Pilgrim’s Progress, where you talk about any issues and how we can do better each month without any managers present.”
Initiatives like this build a culture of autonomy and trust, which breeds fulfilment, creates relationships, and ultimately leads to happiness for all those involved. And it even filters into Pizza Pilgrims’ growth policy.
“The only reason I want to grow is to give people opportunities to grow themselves”, Thom declared, “I don’t want to grow for growing’s sake.” The latter must be avoided at all costs for Thom because he believes it is the root cause of brands becoming plastic, hollow versions of their former selves. To grow, Thom needs to be convinced that it’s for the right reasons, whether that’s to develop more of his team’s skills, afford more people the opportunity to get into hospitality, or to make sure the business doesn’t stagnate.
“You wanna be in that push yourself zone”, Thom claimed, “not the break yourself zone…Tension is good, and I’m all up for setting a target when it comes to growth, but if we say six and we only manage five, I don’t want that to be a failure.” His valuable point was: if meeting the target you set at the start of the year will dilute the work you’ve done thus far, it isn’t worth it. Growth must be carefully considered, managed, and evaluated, otherwise, the business will lose sight of what really matters.
This article only scratches the surface of what was a truly fascinating conversation, so if you have the time, we strongly recommend you listen to the entire episode, here. Nevertheless, we concluded this episode in typical All Together fashion, with Thom’s Three Things – three pieces of actionable advice you can use today to build a better business.
Talk to your team as much as you can.
“If you talk to them already, talk to them even more”, Thom advised. “Find as many ways to chat to them and learn from them as possible. Find out what is making their day difficult…because that’s all stuff you can learn from and action.” Your staff are the people who see how your business is operating on a daily basis; they know what’s good and what’s bad. If you can work through the negatives together, you’ll boost efficiency, productivity, and loyalty at the same time.
Immediately start treating every supplier like a partner.
Gone are the days where every procurement practice was about the price rather than the relationship, according to Thom. “That’s such a narrowminded way of looking at it”, he exclaimed, “because when the shit hits the fan, the relationship is more important than anything. When there is a supply chain problem, for instance, and there are only 500 bags of flour but 1000 people who want them, you’re gonna be the person they give it to!”
Pick one third-party standard and focus your whole company towards it.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s being a Sunday Times 100 Employer, Net Zero, or going down the B Corp route”, Thom explained. “Pick something you want to excel at and choose a standard to match it because even if you only do it as an exercise, it will show you so quickly where your pitfalls are.”
Thom was such a great guest, offering our members direct insights into his business and actionable advice for them to follow, and so we would like to thank him for his time.
If you have a business that is facing challenges or questions that you aren’t quite sure about, apply to All Together today for up to 5 hours of pro bono mentoring from a leading UK CEO.