Guest Blog Post by David Johnstone
You may have read my previous blog post for Little Missed Gluten about the gluten free Pizza Express trial ran back in January so you probably know the whole back story and about my on-off love affair with Pizza Express… no need to repeat it here! So it was a pleasant surprise with some excitement when they tweeted me few a weeks ago, wanting contact details to discuss something.
An email arrived from Paul, Pizza Express’ Social Media Manager, inviting me to a Gluten Free Blogger evening the following week at a branch in London. Coeliac UK were also going to be there, plus others members of the Pizza Express team would be presenting and chatting to us about a new gluten free menu. Fantastic! Yes! Where do I sign?! I just couldn’t wait; it was very intriguing and had to be big, great news if Coeliac UK were also in attendance.
The following Monday evening, I arrived at the branch and was directed downstairs by a waiter. Sudden irrational waves of fear washed over me, what if a load of Italians in black suits were waiting for me downstairs? Was I going to swim with the fishes following the last blog?… Thankfully no! Instead I was greeted and immediately offered gluten and wheat free beer, Green’s Premium Pilsner, which is a very nice light beer. Plus there were familiar friendly coeliac faces in the gathering; this was going to be an interesting evening.
Taking my seat while enjoying my beer and trying to appear cosmopolitan, this little booklet jumped out at me from where it was sat on the table. Instantly this changed the game, Pizza Express had GOT it!!! NGCI accreditation!
Gluten free flour to be used to work all pizzas in their kitchens, further, specific gluten free training for all staff. This was a different league.
Now, I’m not going into intense detail about the food itself. Other professional GF bloggers will do a far better job explaining all this. But trust me, it was as fantastic as it should have been and as wonderful as the trial. What I do want to talk about is the people/team behind it… the hard work, passion and dedication to their brand and into getting this right!
Paul (Social Media Manager) came over and introduced himself. We talked about how Pizza Express had been listening and taking onboard all the comments and posts from the trial. Every bit of feedback was analysed and discussed by the team. It was clearly evident from that moment that Pizza Express wanted to listen to all its customers and cared about their options.
Next I spoke to Emma the Marketing Director for Pizza Express. Amongst many other things, Emma explained how people’s feedback and blogs from the trial where discussed high up at boardroom level. Also how a close friend’s daughter was diagnosed coeliac two years ago and including children with a good, safe gluten free menu was also a priority. How this excited 9 year old has helped shape the menu, a proper gluten free role model for young girls everywhere. I honestly believe the child’s menu is a major advantage that Pizza Express has over other restaurants with gluten free options. I haven’t personally come across any that offers a full menu for young coeliacs, so they can be included. For sure this will hugely draw families to the chain and children with coeliac disease will finally be able to have / attend birthday parties there with no issues. Fabulous!
Later on Gemma (PR Manager), Holly (Food & Drinks Brand Manager) and Rupi (Head of Quality and Safety) also addressed us. They talked at length about how the team had been working around 1 ½ years developing and investigating gluten free options, testing hundreds of bases, finding out for themselves just how bad the wrong gluten free products can be. Again how after the trial feedback they realised this couldn’t be just a menu addition, but an integral part of it. They realised they needed our confidence and the biggest step was dealing with the cross contamination risk. Further to the extra training and separate utensil identification being put in place, the biggest challenge had to be the flour flying around in the kitchen. Changing to a gluten free flour mix for all, was the obvious conclusion, but undoubtedly the riskiest as this would potentially effect the taste of every pizza, dough ball they serve up. So again hard work and plenty of research was required to make sure the solution was right for everyone.
While we tucked into our pizzas, Holly (Food & Drinks Brand Manager) asked me how the base compared to that from the trial. To be honest I was too busy enjoying the food to analyse it. Holly explained that the weight of the base had been increased making it slightly thicker. When I really thought about it later, it was noticeable and to be completely honest I think I marginally preferred the original. But the reason for the increase was that some of topping on the trial pizzas wasn’t getting cooked properly without slightly overcooking the base. Again only when I thought about it, this too was noticeable on the original trial pizza. The attention to detail and passion for the food was obvious.
I chatted to Rupi (Head of Quality and Safety) later, feeling slightly bad at the time because she undoubtedly would have dealt with my and other coeliac complaints in the past. But again her passion for the product and her work was evident. Getting it right and keeping everyone well was important. Even to the extent when Kim (@coeliacme) asked for a cider instead of the beer, Rupi intervened and wasn’t happy to serve that to a coeliac as she didn’t have the full ingredient list at hand to check.
Whatever reasons or judgements lead to the disclaimer and directions taken with the trial run earlier this year has most definitely been realised and corrected. Major changes have been made within the kitchens, changes that affected everything that they produced, so that coeliacs can eat safely, confidently and enjoy a high quality meal. Certainly the best pizza on the high street I’ve tried. Good honest quality food at decent size (I believe the same size but can’t be sure) as the standard base and the same price. Coeliacs are certainly not being ripped off here by a half-hearted attempt just to increase customer base. The overwhelming genuine feeling I got from everyone is they dearly wanted and worked hard for the dining experience to be happy, safe and excellent for everybody.
This is one happy #OverExcitedCoeliac!
Pizza Express Media Release
The three ingredients that cannot be used on gluten free pizzas:
- Spicy beef
- Gruyere and parmesan sauce
The Pizza Express attendees for the evening:
- Emma Woods – Marketing Director
- Holly Davis – Food & Drinks Brand Manager
- Paul Greguric – Social Media Manager
- Gemma Shaw – PR Manager
- Rupi Zani – Head of Quality and Safety