Peter Boizot is a bit of hero to me. Not a name that is instantly recognisable perhaps, but I’ll wager many of you have eaten in one of his restaurants. Where you ask? Pizza Express say I.
‘So why is he a bit of a hero to you then Bax?’ I hear Clive Marshall ask.
Let me explain…
Peter first experienced eating a pizza in Italy whilst on holiday in the late 1940s. Considered ‘peasant food’, for some reason the experience of the dish stayed with him. A good few years later, he was eating in an Italian restaurant in Soho, and he spotted pizza on the menu, still very much a rarity in those days of the 1960s. He loved the experience all over again and asked why there was no dedicated pizzeria in London? The proprietor of the restaurant told him, that a proper pizza oven was the the first thing he needed, and they were pretty non-existent in London.
A few days later, in Rome on business, Peter found himself talking to a local pizzeria owner and asked where his ovens came from. Within hours he had bought one to ship back to London. He then bought out Zampi’s restaurant on Wardour Street for £100 – plus the reputed £14,000 worth of debt – and he found himself in the restaurant game in 1965.
He had the interior painted all white, lit the joint with fluorescent tubes and renamed it Pizza Express. The pizza he served was sold in two bob slices (that’s 10p to you young ‘uns) and with no tables or chairs available, the first wave of punters stood up at the counter to eat. By the end of its first day, it had taken £3.
Things then began to evolve. Tables and chairs were added to avoid the now congested bar area, as people began to flock in. Proper metal cutlery was added next. Things got busier still and then a second restaurant was added, this time in Coptic Street, near to the British Museum.
This ‘necklace’ of restaurants – Boizot preferred that phrase instead of it being called a chain – was based on a general business model of good inexpensive food, served in clean and well-designed restaurants. This worked very well, with more and more restaurants added, eventually expanding up North and then all over the UK.
The man himself was a son of Peterborough, a town which remained very dear to his heart his whole life. He was born in Walton in November 1929 and he had a good solid schooling, indeed becoming head boy at Kings School in the town. He also sang in Peterborough Cathedral and went on to study History on a scholarship at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, picking up a degree in 1953.
He began his business career shortly after and spent ten years in sales for various companies, all over Europe, from working for Nestle to selling postcards from a barrow.
‘Boz’ as his close friends called him was also a keen jazz fan and he opened the Pizza Express Jazz Club on the corner of Dean Street in 1969. Over the years the great and the good have graced the stage there and at the other jazz clubs he opened around the UK. Everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Amy Winehouse. Among them, Pizza on the Park on Hyde Park Corner and he also started the Soho Jazz Festival in 1986.
Shunning advertising, Boizot found ‘word of mouth’ worked better and top of the feedback from customers was that they enjoyed seeing their food prepared in front of them, by staff in smart uniforms. The celebrated interior designs were handled by his friend Enzo Apicella, who in the end had a hand in over 70 of the restaurants. Peter also had a keen interest in art, and commissioned pieces by the likes of Eduardo Paolozzi and Sir Peter Blake, to adorn the walls of his eateries.
He was keen on interesting initiatives too. ‘Boz’ was the first to import Peroni to these shores to sell alongside his food. His ‘Venice in Peril’ campaign, with money being donated from the sale of each of his Veneziana pizzas, raised over £2 Million to conserve the buildings and art works in Venice, for which he was awarded an Italian knighthood in 1996.
As mentioned earlier, he was a Peterborough man through and through. He was owner and chairman of its football club, Peterborough United, for ten years from 1997 to 2007 and turned its former Odeon cinema into the ‘Broadway’, an entertainment complex with live theatre and concert halls. He also donated £100,000 to the choir at Peterborough’s cathedral, where he once sang himself.
From humble beginnings, Pizza Express and its associated franchises opened restaurants as far and wide as China, Russia, India and the Middle East and had over 500 in operation at one time. It was sold in 2014 to a Chinese company for £900 million.
When I read of Peter Boizot, I see a happy, generous, philanthropist who enjoyed his life and money, and gave to others, so they too might enjoy a bit of it. That’s why I admire him.
Was he also eccentric? Most definitely. He called his way if life ‘enlighted self-interest’ and once famously said ‘To think my wealth is all down to a simple round object from Naples…’
Peter Boizot MBE died on 5 December 2018, aged 89.
The Mumper of SE5
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