Thom and James Elliot are the brothers and owners behind Pizza Pilgrims, a chain pizzerias in London and Oxford, United Kingdom. When the impacts of COVID-19 closed their restaurants’ doors, The Elliot brothers had to pivot quickly. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Thom Elliot on how they created mailable pizza kits, established employee retention programs, and are planning for the future.
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Road tripping out of the corporate world
Thom and James grew up in the pubs that their parents ran and loved the art of hospitality from a young age. Despite working in advertising and television, respectively, Thom and James were called to the world of hospitality. “There was parental pressure to not go into that world,” recalls Thom, “so we both went off and did university and got "proper jobs" but after a few years of doing that, we both realized that it was not for us."
In 2011, London's street food scene was taking off, but the Elliot brothers noticed the surprising absence of a curbside staple: pizza. While figuring out how to set their food truck apart, they were immediately struck with the idea of purchasing a Piaggio Ape car and installing an oven in the back of it. “We combined the idea of going to pick up this vehicle from the very tip of the toe of Italy in Calabria with also going on a research trip,” says Thom. Their unconventional idea caught the attention of producers and their trip was eventually documented and turned into a six-part television show as well as a cookbook.
The trip also provided a springboard for Thom and James to start Pizza Pilgrims as street vendors. While they initially started with catered events, the duo realized that in order to establish their brand, they had to be more available to the general public. When finding a place to set up their food stall proved to be difficult with never-ending waitlists at every market, Thom and James got creative. “We started going to these markets every week and taking photos of ourselves, standing in empty pitches,” says Thom. Catching the attention of organizers at Berwick Street Market, Thom and James were offered the chance to set up their stall right in the middle of Soho, the heart of London.
From street markets to a chain of restaurants
Thom and James kept the business afloat by selling through wintery days at the market, catering at any event that came their way. After 18 months, the brothers got investors on board to finance their first brick-and-mortar restaurant. But a whole new business model led to a brand new set of challenges. “We were so naive. We basically thought a restaurant was going to be a van with a few more seats and you pay a bit more rent,” Thom shares. Instead, they had to navigate through additional paperwork, legal requirements, longer hours, and managing more staff. Through it all, though, Thom and James made sure the work remained fun, pairing early mornings fixing plumbing problems with after work beer pong.
Over the years, Pizza Pilgrims grew to 13 locations, something that seemed like a distant dream at one point. “We used to sit in the Dean Street location and wonder, "How could you ever run two restaurants? What kind of maniac would consider that?" Thom jokes.
Thanks to a string of fortunate events, Thom and James have been able to expand when a developer noticed their restaurant and invited them to join a new real estate complex. The key to their expansion? Hiring to fill skill gaps. “We were always aware of our strengths and weaknesses,” Thom says, and the team quickly identified operations as the main area in need of improvement. “We're good at thinking on our feet, adapting, and getting through on just pure passion, blood, sweat, and tears,” Thom says. “But when trying to build something with structure, that is not our forte.”
Thom credits the hiring and the hard work of their finance, operations, and human resources directors for making Pizza Pilgrims into the business it is today. Now with 13 stores and a team of over 275 and growing, Thom stresses the importance of providing enough flexibility for each establishment to run how it needs to. Pizza Pilgrims equip employees with training and guidelines while balancing it out with giving the reins to employees to run restaurants with their own personal touch.
Mailing pizzas and pivoting online due to COVID-19
The impact COVID-19 had on Pizza Pilgrims was, unfortunately, swift and severe. Thom shares that the team “went from a record sales week to zero in about 10 days.” The United Kingdom government is running a furlough program that covers 80% of salary for those affected, it’s still a challenging time for the hospitality industry, as a meaningful portion of their income came from tips, something the furlough can't cover.
With all their restaurants closed and employees receiving partial salaries, Thom and James had to think of another way to keep the pilgrimage going. Thom recalls that James was adamant about making an at-home pizza kit. “It’s something we talked about doing in the past but had never actually done,” says Thom. Now, pressed to find alternative avenues for the business, they began taking the idea seriously. Their first step was mailing each other homemade kits as a test, using ice packs to keep the ingredients cold and sheep’s wool as an insulator. “James sent the first one to me, the tomato sauce, the cheese—the dough itself had exploded,” says Thom. “It was like pizza soup in a bag, but it was cold.”
Despite the mess, seeing that the ingredients could be kept fresh was enough for Thom and James to keep on improving and testing. Within two weeks, they reached a version of the kits that were able to be mailed across the country. The pithily named “Pizza In The Post” now needed an online store to accept orders, so the brothers started their search. “The word that kept coming back was Shopify,” says Thom.
With their Shopify store up and running, Pizza Pilgrims were in for a new ride. The team's initial plans only called for 50 kits a day, but on launch day, they were sold out in 20 seconds. To meet demands, they listed over a thousand kits for their third day of sales, but they were in for another shock. “Those 1,100 kits were then sold out in 50 minutes,” Thom says. “To put it in context, that is the busiest trading hour in the history of Pizza Pilgrims, and all of our stores are closed.”
Plans for Pizza Pilgrims’ future
Pizza In The Post is not just an alternative revenue stream for Pizza Pilgrims, but it is also a way for the team to connect with their patrons—with the inability to have customers in their dining rooms, Thom and James are now brought into their customers’ kitchens and living rooms. “We get 300 to 400 individual Instagram stories a day,” says Thom as customers want to see how Thom and James would rate their pizza-making skills.The future remains uncertain, but not without a few silver linings. As restaurant doors open, Thom and James are also working on their second book. Slated to hit shelves in November, the book is all about pizza and features recipes, interviews, and city guides. As they journey through many hurdles, Thom and James will take on the future with a heavy dose of their key ingredient—optimism. “You've got to be an insane optimist to get through it,” says Thom. “Who knows what's going to happen next? But I think that's what's fun about it.”