Thom Elliot, co founder of Pizza Pilgrims chats pizza and travel
I chatted with Thom recently about travelling in Italy, which city in the world he thinks serves the best pizza, his thoughts on a difficult twelve months for the hospitality industry, his predictions for the year ahead and whether we’ll be seeing my favourite pizza – bacon and banana – on a Pizza Pilgrims’ menu any time soon.
(Thom Elliot, right, and brother James, left)
How did it all start?
“I’d been working in a ‘proper job’ in advertising for seven years and my brother James had been working in TV for around five. We both really wanted to get into food and, back in 2011, we’d come up with various ways to try and do that…we’d applied to be on a Raymond Blanc-style TV show for example and we’d tried to buy a pub, because we’d grown up in pubs our whole life, so it was in our blood.
James had the idea of starting a pizza oven company because he’d done a cooking course in Italy for his 21st birthday and, over there, had seen that everyone had a pizza oven in their garden rather than a barbecue.
Then Jamie Oliver beat him to the punch on that one. But around the same time, the street food revolution was taking off in London – we went to a car park in Peckham and there was Meat Liquor dishing out 150 burgers. It was the best burger I’d ever tasted and it came out of the back of a van.
Obviously, a movement was starting to happen. For the first time, anyone could start a legitimate food business out of the back of a van with no money and be taken seriously.
We looked around with our pizza-oven background in mind and the first thing that became apparent and that was no one was doing pizza, which seemed like a huge oversight given that it’s the world’s favourite food.
So, we thought that’s what we’d do, we’d start pizza street food.
That was June 2011, I quit my job the next Monday, and then realised I had nothing – no plan at all, so I had to go and get another job immediately, which was very uncool.
From there we started our “pizza pilgrimage” to Italy.
We had the pizza oven business but then we realised why no one was doing pizza…because you need a pizza oven, which is a nightmare to carry around. So, then we realised we needed a vehicle and decided on the classic three-wheeled Italian vehicle the Ape, which we’d fallen in love with.
We found out it would be cheaper to go over to Italy, pick one up and drive it back to England than have one shipped over and pay the taxes. So, then the idea of doing a trip through Italy was born, going through the whole country and really learning everything we could about pizza from the experts.
What really spurred us on was meeting up with the boss of my former advertising agency, who I never particularly knew when I was there, but she was quitting to start a bakery.
I went along for a beer and a chat with her, and it turned out her husband was a food writer for the FT. He said we had a fantastic idea and gave us lots of great advice including getting a TV crew to film it. He was so enthusiastic and gave us the courage to actually get going.
We bought the van on a credit card and set off on our little trip with a film crew from The Food Network in tow, which afforded us a lot of access.
The trip was incredible – the first time we had pizza in Naples was truly magical and I guess we’ve been trying to recreate that moment ever since.
How many pizza restaurants did you eat at in Naples on that first trip and is there such a thing as bad pizza there?
Our first trip to Italy wasn’t just about pizza in Naples…it was also about basil in Genoa, mozzarella in Campania and Parma for ham. We did the whole lot, so Naples was literally a 24-hour stop.
On that first-ever trip we only went to da Michele, the most super legit, long standing of Naples’ pizzerias. To this day it was kind of the Julia Roberts’ Eat Pray Love moment of ‘oh my God, how have I lived my life and not eaten this?’
We’ve been back since and one time we stayed two nights and ate at 27 pizzerias. All better than average but definitely not all good. Although to be fair if you have a pizza in Naples nine times out of ten it’ll be great.
Increasingly though there are four or five places that are famous and swamped, but then there are good ones nearby that are not famous and they’re empty.
You can walk down Via dei Tribunali ie pizza street and you’ll find a perfectly-great pizzeria that has no one in it and then you’ll get to say, Sorbillo, which has a queue of two hundred people. But I’ve never had a disastrous experience in Naples.
Elsewhere, Roman pizza is very good, very classy, very different to Naples. Neapolitans eat pizza a lot, and they eat it pizza a portofoglio or folded up and eaten out of their hands, they’ll eat it on the go, anywhere.
We had pizza in Calabria which was excellent and where we discovered ‘nudja, which at the time was almost unheard of back home – we came back to London and put it on a pizza and the general reaction was ‘what the hell is this?’
Everywhere we went on that trip we learnt something that added to the experience.
Outside of Italy where do you think is the best pizza city and why?
You can’t really argue with New York. We recently wrote a book and our mission for that was to go and try pizza all around the world and understand why it’s such a popular staple food.
New York is the only city where their obsession with pizza comes close to Naples, but in a different way. It’s not quite so serious…in Naples it’s really intense…you’ve got to do it right or don’t do it at all. Whereas in New York they need pizza to get through the day.
Pizza started in Naples in the 1800s, then all the immigrants went from there in the early 1900s to the new world and took pizza with them. Pizza subsequently explodes in New York. But if you went to Milan in the 1930s, they wouldn’t know what that was. Pizza only came to a broader swathe of Italy when American GIs were stationed there after WWII.
So, the pizza history map is not Naples to the rest of Italy and then out to the world. It’s Naples to New York and then back to Italy. So, Italy’s claimed it as its own when New York has a much more legitimate part to play in that story.
In New York you can get great pizza by the slice, and we opened a pizza slice operation on the Southbank in London last December, with Finsbury Park to follow. A New York slice when done right is a thing of beauty.
Where else? I really want to go to Sao Paulo in Brazil. I hear the pizza there is exceptional.
Pizza has developed independently in almost every culture. I went to Chicago with the express intention of hating their deep-dish pizza, but it was delicious. It’s like Darwinism.
And in New Haven, Connecticut they’ve developed their own completely-unique style too, which has even got its own language…pizza there is apizza.
When you were setting up Pizza Pilgrims, with hindsight, what’s the number one thing you’d do differently if you had your time over again?
I never really like that question because it’s just not the way my brain works. I’m not the type of person who looks back and thinks ‘oh I wish we’d done that instead.’ You’ve just got to make the best of the decisions you’ve taken.
What decisions would we have changed? Maybe we’d have done hot dogs. In the early days, we really looked at the hot dog guys at the festivals and thought ‘God, that’s a genius business model.’ Everyone loves hot dogs, you can sell them really fast and there’s no waste.
The bit that I think we have done right is that we’ve never let decisions drag us down. Being forced into a corner has created some of our best moments as a company and made us come up with something better.
That feeling of looking back and wishing you’d done something differently, I just don’t think you can be like that if you’re wanting to be an entrepreneur. You’ve got to be able to roll with the punches. Nine times out of ten you start out with your blueprint, then you’ve got to amend it when necessary.
The last 12 months have been pretty torrid for everyone in hospitality. How were they for you and how have you weathered the year?
It’s been incredibly hard, especially on our teams. They would get paid £9 an hour plus £4 in tips which is a pretty solid wage. But then, <with furlough>, they’ve gone from that to just 80 per cent of £9 and no tips…well that’s not 80 per cent of the total they were earning before, it’s just over 50 per cent.
We’ve spent our time trying to get as many people as we can off furlough. Lockdown 1 was a complete write-off. We weren’t doing anything – everyone was scared how this ‘thing’ was going to pan out. Then after about a month team members, who were mostly young, were more comfortable with the situation and were ready to come back to work.
So, then we opened the store in Victoria to do Deliveroo. As part of that James called me up and we talked about frying-pan pizza and boxing up all the ingredients to send through the post.
I told him it was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard in my life!
We played with it and eventually put 50 pizza-in-the-post kits up on Instagram on a Wednesday morning, thinking it would take a week for them to go.
They sold out in 20 seconds.
We did another 50 and they went in 20 seconds too.
On the third day, we put 1100 kits up and we sold them all in 50 minutes – our busiest hour of trading in the company ever.
Since then we’ve expanded that and we now mail out around 6,000 a week, whilst also reopening all the stores for Deliveroo and we’re getting them ready for eat-in when we’re allowed.
I’m obsessed about making pizza affordable, but at the same time the best it can be. Pizza is one of the few things in the world where you can buy the best that’s possibly out there and it’ll only cost you a few dollars or euros. It should be something that’s accessible and democratic. We want Pizza Pilgrims to be a good, fun, cheap accessible option.
Everyone’s crystal ball is pretty murky right now – how do you see things for the hospitality industry in London in twelve months’ time?
I think it’s going to be a bit mad initially <when we’re allowed out>. We see it in Spring anyway, people are like, right, April’s here, let’s go out.
What will happen after that? I don’t know. I think we will all revert within two years to exactly how we all lived our lives before. I 100% do not think we’ll all still be at our kitchen tables doing Zoom calls. Yes, we might not come in one day fewer a week maybe, but I think in terms of eating out if you came into the office five days a week before, you maybe ate out two or three. I think if you’re coming into the office one day less, you’re still going to eat out the same two or three times.
Final question – bacon and banana on pizza: yes or no?
I’m up for it. I think we buy into the notion that if something’s not done like it was 200 years ago it’s not right, and I fundamentally disagree with that. I mean obviously you want to do certain things right and use the correct ingredients. We still use tomato and mozzarella and flour from Naples but you’ve got to try new things, you’ve got to experiment and push things forward.
I’ll get on that one…maybe we could do it as a limited edition for pizzas in the post?”
All photos = c/o Pizza Pilgrims, except the 3rd & 4th ones down = c/o Unsplash.com