The True Art of Pizza Making

Brothers Thom and James Elliot quit their jobs to embark on a pilgrimage across Italy to discover the true art of pizza making. Travelling in a three wheeled pizza van with a top speed of 20 miles-per-hour, their mission was to find the ultimate pizza recipe.  The pilgrimage took 6 weeks, covered 4500km and included a stint working in a Neapolitan pizzeria, but the effort was worth it…

Pizza pilgrims brothers Thom and James Elliot stand next to van

Pizza Pilgrims started out as Piaggio Ape van come mobile pizza oven, bringing Napoli inspired street food to London.  Earlier this year, the brothers released their first book and this summer, they opened a permanent pizzeria on Dean Street in London’s Soho.

One half of Pizza Pilgrims, Thom, tells us how they did it…

How/what inspired you to set up Pizza Pilgrims?

Like most of our ideas, it began in the pub!  Our parents ran a food-led pub so we have a bit of a background in food and knew we wanted to do something in the industry.  The street food revolution was just heating up, and starting out in a van was a way to start a business with limited set up costs.  We decided to give it a go on the premise that if didn’t work, we wouldn’t have lost much!

What makes your brand stand out in such a competitive market?

Firstly, our van…  It’s really unique and it’s elusive because people don’t always realise that you’re going to be in the same spot at the same time every week, so when we’re there it creates a real buzz.

Secondly, our product…  We worked really hard to create our pizza – we travelled to Italy, spent time in a Neapolitan pizzeria and held taste test events with bloggers.  It’s so important to get the product right - if the pizza isn’t good, the customer isn’t going to come back.

How do you react to the changing marketplace?

We believe in learning as you go…  The morning after our grand pizzeria opening we changed everything from the computer systems and menus to the staff.  I think it’s a case of 10% planning and 90% getting stuck in.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing foodservice businesses like yourselves today and as a business, what are you doing to overcome this challenge?

The biggest challenge is that there are so many budding entrepreneurs out there who share our passion for food and want to do what we do, so if we don’t do a good job, they will replace us.

The upside of this is that there is a real buzz around food. The sector is growing and people want to eat here and write about us. Social media can be a very powerful tool but it’s got to be used properly to engage people.  We try to strike a balance by doing something creative, like develop a new product, and then tweet about it and ask for people’s opinion. This has worked really well for us – we’ve never had to print a flyer.

What is the biggest business mistake you’ve made and what key learning did you take from it to make your business better?

It’s probably buying a "vehicle" that has a top speed of 20 mph and no storage space…  We need two vans to get to any event outside of London - one to carry the Ape and one to carry the actual equipment!

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

Don’t say ‘no’ to anything.  Some of our biggest successes stories have come from the strangest places.