15 JUNE 2002, Page 24


Middle England's favourite pizza chain knows how to provide nice toilet facilities, but is it

a rip-off? Deborah Ross investigates WELCOME, everyone, to this first-ever report from Whichever?, a non-subscription-only publication which isn't Which?, as that's really boring and rubbish value for money, because once you've subscribed for 27 years and finally decided on the best-value fridge/freezer, you've bought it 52 times over anyway. Now, at Whichever? we are, on the whole, totally indifferent to value for money and even rather pride ourselves on it. Our motto? Just Buy the Bloody One You Want and Stop Dithering, You Silly Old Moo. But recently I was rather shocked by a visit to Pizza Express. Now, as editor of Whichever? (as well as secretary, typist, janitor, tea-lady, chief time-waster at the watercooler and receptionist, for which I always dress nicely, as first impressions are so important when it comes to clients), it takes something quite monstrous to shock me; but this truly did.

Now, it wasn't the restaurant as such. Come on. You've been to Pizza Express, and know the restaurants are amiable enough in their rather bland, corporate, chromed. squiggly logo-ed, we're-retaining-complete-control-of-the-pepper-mill sort of way. And it wasn't the waitress, who seemed utterly charming. And it wasn't the pizza as such either. The pizza seemed very amiable too; and tasted nice enough. The trouble, though, was the size of it. It was titchy. It was the size of a side-plate. It was the size of a very small side-plate. I wanted to say to my pizza, 'Carty on at school, do your exams, get some experience, see the world, and come back when you've grown up a bit, there's a good boy.' It was the opposite of hearty. It was unhearty. It was weedy. It was piddly. And it was 0.50. And it only had one-and-a-half anchovies on. Which, ounce for ounce, must put Pizza Express anchovies up there with crack cocaine, if not plutonium. So I said to my partner, 'Is it just me, or have the pizzas here got smaller and smaller over the years?' Now, my partner, too, is a very Whichever? sort of person. I am even thinking of putting him on the board and letting him take over on reception while I go for lunch (so long as he puts on a suit — and shaves). But he, too, was rather taken aback. 'They do seem absurdly undersized,' he said. And our ten-yearold son, who has the appetite of a horse, if not 12 horses, a buffalo and 42 elephants who haven't eaten since a week last Wednesday? He said, 'Can I have another one after this?'

So, have Pizza Express pizzas got smaller over the years? Or have I just got greedier? Is it, even, a complete rip-off? A scam? A national scandal? A disgrace? To this end, I decided to leave the reception unmanned (sorry if you called and there was no one to greet you, but now you understand why) and to embark on a special investigation the like of which we at Whichever? have never done before, probably because we usually can't be arsed with this sort of thing. Whatever, after meeting with our editorial director (who also, coincidentally, happens to be me) I decided to order pizzas from all over the place, weigh them, measure them, count the anchovies, dispatch my partner to do complicated things with something called 'pi' (which is why he couldn't man the reception in my absence) and work out what they all cost ounce for ounce. In all instances I ordered an Italian-based margherita with ham and anchovies. In all instances I ordered the 'medium' size, except in those cases (that is, Pizza Express, La Porcetta, Mauro's) where only one size was available. Here are the results:

Pizza Express: 13oz, 9ins, £7.50. Anchovies: 1.5. Cost per oz: 57.7p. La Porcetta: 25oz, 13ins, £5.50. Anchovies: 7. Cost per oz: 22p. Pizza Bella: 17oz, 10ins, £6,55. Anchovies: 6. Cost per oz: 38.5p. Domino's: 19oz, llins, £9.79. Anchovies: 11. Cost per oz: 51.5p. Pizza Max: 16oz, 9ins,I6.05. Anchovies: 4. Cost per oz: 37.8p. Pizza Hut: 23oz, 13ins, £7.89. Anchovies: 9. Cost per oz: 34.3p. Pizza Go Go: 14oz, 8ins, £6.55. Anchovies: 5. Cost per oz: 46.8p. Mauro's: 19oz. 14.5ins. £4.85. Anchovies: 11. Cost per oz 25.5p.

Now, of course, although I have no idea what 'pi' is, I do know that it can't accommodate taste in its calculations, so a few observations here. One or two of the pizzas, although representing better value for money than Pizza Express, were rather grotty. The one from Pizza Max, for example, came with anchovies which seemed to have been most unattractively mashed, making the total anchovy-count something of a tricky affair resolved only by assuming that every four mashed bits counted as one. As far as the dough goes, all were pretty much of a muchness. although Pizza Hut's seemed particularly good — very thin and crispy. Domino's was surprisingly expensive, although it did come with a free garlic dip for the crust, which is actually something I'd pay not to have. The best ones, by far, came from local, neighbourhood pizza parlours, most notably La Porcetta and Mauro's, whose pizzas were just as pizzas should be: thin and crispy (as requested) with proper mozzarella, decent slices of ham rather than chewy, plasticky cubes. a bit of anchovy in every bite, and bloody huge! Now, I'm not saying that Pizza Express pizzas trail behind in terms of quality. They don't. They're probably on a par. But at 57.7p per ounce, as compared with 22p (La Porcetta) and 25p (Mauro's). it's got to be a bloody scandal, hasn't it?

Ah, yes, I can hear you saying, but if it is such a scandal, why is Pizza Express so popular? Why, if it represents such poor value for money, do people go not just the once, but time after time after time? Why is there even a Pizza Express Club, offering special benefits to regulars? I ask a friend of mine, who happens to be an award-winning restaurant critic. Why, I ask, do people go to Pizza Express time after time after time? 'Lack of imagination?' she suggests. She adds, 'Frankly. I don't actually get it either. I mean, Pizza Express in Leeds in 1972 might have seemed rather exotic, but I can't get excited about another one in Clerkenwell.' I ask around some more. Here are the most common reasons for going to Pizza Express and cheerfully paying over the odds for the 'experience': It's reliable and consistent. You know exactly what you arc going to get.

It's very middle-class and, as such, the toilet seat will always be down and there won't be cigarette scorch-marks on the rim.

It's super child-friendly, with high chairs always available.

There's a vase containing a single fresh flower on every table.

It doesn't play deafeningly loud music. There's no sad salad bar, featuring depressing buckets of emptied tins of sweetcorn and the odd beetroot.

Only trouble is, the pizzas are so bloody small.

Can you eat the flowers?

Pizza Express is a wildly successful chain. It was founded in Wardour Street in 1960 by Peter Boizot, who, as it happens, imported the first-ever proper pizza oven into Britain. Now, though? Well, now it's a plc with 230 UK restaurants annually serving 16 million customers. Last year the company had a turnover of £103.8 million and made a profit, before taxation, of £21.8 million. (Presumably, this would have been £10 million, but two people ordered extra anchovies.) Abroad, there are already restaurants in Spain, New Delhi, Tokyo, Paris and Moscow, but not, interestingly. in Italy or America, the two countries that really know about pizza. Actually, Pizza Express did open two restaurants in America, but they quickly closed at a loss of almost £1 million. Indeed, as my restaurant-critic friend says, 'Most Americans would consider a pizza from Pizza Express too small to even blow their noses on.'

So, where have we got to thus far? Well, thus far, we're assuming that people are happy to pay considerably more at Pizza Express for a reliable product. Thus far. we're kind of assuming that Pizza Express is the Marks & Spencer of pizza establishments: a brand you can trust, offering a quality product whose buttons won't pop off within the week (so to speak). But — and I'm not sure why — I just have this feeling that there might be some sharp practice going on somewhere. I do some further research and, amazingly, come up with a couple of things that may be interesting but then again may not be. It's up to you.

First off, in 1999 the Inland Revenue brought a case against Pizza Express for failing to comply with the minimum wage. Pizza Express, apparently. had tried to avoid paying the hourly minimum of £3.60 by adding cash tips to its £3.10 and £3.20 waiting-staff rates. (Tips can only be included in the minimum wage if they are paid through the bill.) Ultimately, the company was ordered to raise the hourly rate and refund back-pay of some £230,000.

Also, there is the anchovy question. When I later returned to Pizza Express, to order a different kind of pizza but with extra anchovies on, I still got only one and a half. Pizza Express charges £1.20 for an extra topping (whereas most of the other establishments charge, on average, '70p). This works out at 80p per anchovy. I think, in fact, plutonium might be rather cheaper. The worry here, I suppose, is that the success of Pizza Express is based on a clever combination of simultaneously seducing and overcharging the customer, while squeezing the staff.

Do I put all this to Pizza Express, as a good investigative reporter should? Amazingly. yes. I contact head office who, in turn, put me through to the head of quality assurance, a man who has been with the company for over 30 years and is called . . . wait for it ... Dickie Bird! Well, everyone here at the Whichever? offices fell about when we heard that, or would have done, if only we had an office and I wasn't the only member of staff. Still, once I'd collected myself, I telephoned him. Our conversation went something like this: 'Mr . . . um .. . Bird? Can I ask, have your pizzas got smaller over the years?'

'No. Absolutely not, although you're not the first person to ask. But I've got pizza rings going back 20 years, and I can tell you they are identically sized to the ones we use now.'

'Did you know that, ounce for ounce, Pizza Express pizzas are the most expensive?'

'I've never done those calculations myself.'

'How would you account for it?'

'We use top-quality ingredients. For example, we only use pure virgin olive oil. We even use pure virgin olive oil in our chocolate cake. We don't allow vegetable oils into our restaurants. They're banned, so no one can cheat. We import our pepperoni from Hungary. It's expensive, but our customers like it. We cater for the quality end of the market. Our pizza sauce has two extra leaves of basil per tin. We actually pay two ladies to sit at the end of the production line, putting in the two extra leaves of basil.'

Well, there you have it. You may wish to ask what the two ladies who put in the two extra leaves of basil get paid. Then again, you may not. In conclusion? I have no personal vendetta against Pizza Express. It's just that, when you properly weigh things up, it becomes obvious that you can do much, much better elsewhere. Meanwhile, if you enjoyed this issue of Whichever?, you may want to try its sister publication, So Not in Vogue, which this month celebrates the revival of the shell-suit, preferably teamed with leg-warmers and kitten heels. As a media mogul, I sense I'm truly on my way. Toodlepip!