Thom Elliot started his career in advertising but soon realised this wasn’t for him and joined his brother James on a pizza pilgrimage – a six-week trip through Italy in an Ape van whizzing through the country at 19 mph. Little did they realise what the future would hold.
Only a few people when leaving Radley have a clear idea of what they do, were you one of them?
Other than concentrating on getting to university, no. At the time I felt the only option open to me was to go to university and then working for a consultancy either in law, finance or advertising but in my ideal world I wanted to do something in the music industry like working for a record company. I certainly wasn’t thinking about pizza as a career!
What was your first job?
I worked for a large advertising agency. From the first day, I didn’t really enjoy it, yet I stayed in the industry until I was 27. There were many times when I questioned what I was doing but the most memorable moment came when I accidentally played the same recording twice to a room full of people and watched them argue over which was the better recording – I realised it was time to move on.
How did Pizza Pilgrims start?
It was my brother James’ idea. The initial plan was to be a private catering business making pizzas out of an Ape van; you hire us for parties, weddings etc. We soon realised we didn’t actually know much about pizza and needed a pizza education. We also discovered it was far cheaper to buy an Ape van in Italy than it was in England. The obvious answer was to buy a van in Italy and spend six weeks driving it home, learning about pizza on the way. So we did!
How many eyebrows did you raise when you left your job and said you were going to sell pizza?
Many! I think the idea of having a start-up now is more socially acceptable than it was 10 years ago. It’s hard to buck the trend and quit a steady job. I remember attending a university reunion; my friends were all doing the well-trodden path and thought I was nuts. But I didn’t consider it risky: I left a job I didn’t like, no kids, no mortgage, I wasn’t married. Nothing to lose.
I was fortunate to meet a colleague’s husband who was a food critic. He was the first person we chatted to who didn’t think it was a mad idea. In fact, he was very enthusiastic and encourage us to make a TV programme out of the trip. Until that point, we hadn’t thought about putting emphasis on the trip, yet it definitely became part of the process and is now the company name.
Do you and James work well together?
Our decision-makings come from different angles, and yet, mostly, we come to the same answer. James is very creative but needs direction, and that’s where I come in. So yes, we complement each other well.
Starting a business on your own is lonely, it’s hard work and intimidating, especially at a young age. We felt quite strongly that co-founders should have a 50/50 split – if it’s not equal I think you would run into problems quite quickly.
How long was it between starting the business and opening the first pizzeria?
About 18 months. Initially, I was just in it to get the business off the ground, I didn’t think we would make enough money to support us both. The summer events were a great success and we quickly realised we wanted to have a presence, build a name for ourselves, have somewhere for people to go which is how the market stall in Soho came about. But selling pizzas from a van in winter isn’t so great and that helped push us forward to the pizzeria idea. There was never a business plan to open a pizzeria it all happened organically.
How did you raise capital for a pizzeria?
Until this point, it was all on credit cards. We approached a family friend, who had been in the hospitality business and asked if he would back us. At first, he declined, stating the pizza market was saturated. We went away and did our homework to prove its viability. Since starting the summer events we had been building a name and a following which went a long way to convincing him we had a viable business. We were fortunate in that not only did he agree but he brought in others who had industry experience in PR, finance etc, – and we could call on them for help at any time.
The idea of a second pizzeria was completely beyond us; the opportunity came out of the blue from a landlord in Soho with an offer we couldn’t refuse. From there it’s just grown! We now have 20 pizzerias, which includes a spot in Selfridges.
How did you first market Pizza Pilgrims?
Social media. It’s free, you can have a point of view, sharing warts and all of running a business and we’ve tried to be honest. Our story of two brothers travelling through Italy on a Pizza Pilgrimage helped, it gave us individuality in a crowded market.
Luck was on our side too, we were in the right place right time, being part of the street food movement, so much good food was being served out the back of vans.
Tell me about the highs and lows of running your own business
The low without doubt was Covid, not knowing what was going to happen. We took to selling pizzas through the post: you order a kit, make the pizza yourself at home (in a frying pan!) which proved very successful. It gave us the start-up feel which my brother and I love, I think it’s the thrill of the chase. We worked incredibly hard and feel very fortunate to have made it through Covid.
Hospitality is struggling with staff at the moment, how are you managing?
It is harder than it’s ever been to recruit, train, and keep people. Fortunately, we haven’t had to shut pizzerias due to team shortages, which I know has been a challenge for some. We do try and look after people; team members do leave, but often they come back because they prefer working for us. Those are the good moments!
You run a pizza academy, what is that exactly?
We opened the academy in March 2020, not great timing, the original idea being to give those who need a second chance an opportunity to get work and start rebuilding their life.
It’s a functioning pizzeria in Camden but at the back has a dedicated two-part school, one for front of house, one for back of house. Anyone who joins us goes to learn the core elements and are able to practice what they learn in a real-life situation. It’s a place to ease yourself in, stops people being thrown in straight in the deep end and getting frazzled. It’s working really well.
What’s next for Pizza Pilgrims?
We’re about to open one in Brighton that has an indoor football pitch, yes really.
But numbers don’t really excite me. It’s when people walk in, have a good time, good food, people are happy to work here, giving people an opportunity, engagement with the team, that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.
You’re the Founder of another company, Pococello, what does that do?
We make amazing limoncello. We were working with Chase Distillery and at one point had Pococello on the shelves in Sainsbury’s and Harrods. Unfortunately, Chase was bought out and the new owners didn’t share our passion for limoncello so now we just sell it in-house.
What is your top work tip for current Radley boys?
I would highly recommend spending a year or two working in hospitality, people assume it’s easy but it’s not. In six months to a year, you’re likely to be a manager of a team dealing with lots of different people, managing yourself, coping with lots of demands from all directions, and interacting with those senior and junior to you. If we all spent time serving other people, I believe we would be a lot nicer to one another!
Finally, what were your favourite pastimes as Radley?
I do remember my happy place. Every Wednesday when others were doing sport (I was the least sporty person in the world!) I went to Tea and Symphony – it was so geeky it was right up my street. It was hosted by Luke Bartlett, a chemistry teacher; we drank different types of tea and Mr Bartlett would educate us in classical music. I still listen to some of the music.
Click here to view the Pizza Pilgrim website, including venues and menus, gift vouchers and the brothers’ pizza book; history, recipes, stories, people, and the love of pizza.
Click here to read about Thom’s and James’ pizza pilgrimage.