I saw the news that Pizza Express is in trouble and at risk of folding. People have used the occasion to deal in some clunky humour, display their class credentials, or just relive memories.
My memories are of work. I was part of the inaugural staff at Pizza Express in St Andrews, Scotland, where my wife took her Master’s the first year that we were married. I had myself just graduated with a degree in journalism from Canada’s best programme, and I had over a year of work experience to boot as a reporter and chase producer for the national broadcaster, so I was pretty sure I could get some good work while she studied. Turns out the local rag for that corner of Fife was published out of Dundee, so I took the bus across the Silvery Tay and met with an editor. Tail between my legs, I returned with the knowledge that D.C. Thompson was something of a family firm and they weren’t really hiring.
How, then, to support ourselves when the Canadian dollar was two-fifty to the pound? Well, Pizza Express was opening a new resto, and they were hiring. Not only that, though they had plenty of applicants who were also students and therefore up for part-time work, there was a need for more stable full-time staff to keep the keel even. I had some waiting experience, so they took me. Sent me, of all places, to Dundee to train while the shop was getting finished.
Dundee and St Andrews Pizza Expresses were a study in contrasts. The company had lobbied hard and long to get a location in the Home of Golf: the town council was generally quite shy about chain shops coming in, but they’d finally cracked, and the firm had a good location on Church Square. Perfect for mums and dads taking their little Beauregards and Penelopes off to uni (though maybe a touch wrong for the celebratory graduation meal three years later… but I never got the chance to find out). The floor staff’s uniform was the typical polo shirt but black, with the logo embroidered in gold.
Dundee, however, was a real maverick. The manager had to twist the company’s arm to get permission to put in a fryer: if people couldn’t have a burger and chips, Dundee would not come, he said. They relented, but it was an odd fit. The manager had also, somehow, negotiated for bespoke music to play through the speakers rather than the PE-issued playlists. I enjoyed working with the people there, coming home tired on the last 99 bus with a pizza under my arm to share with my slumbering studying bride. I heard the resto closed a few years after we’d left; I wasn’t surprised.
The customers in Dundee were pretty good-natured, but I recall a table of six with a full meal – starters, mains, desserts; I really worked my ass off for that table and after they’d settled the bill, the dad thanked me and looked me straight in the eye while giving me two quid for a tip. Y’know – enough to get meself a pint after the shift. Could’ve decked him.
But my poshest table at St Andrews was not much better, though a much better story. Busy Saturday night, call comes in to book a table of eight for 8:30. Name was neither Middleton nor Wales – something unassumingly English like Henderson [**UPDATE: A colleague who will remain nameless but, shall we say, highly invested let me know on social media that Henderson is not an English name]. Well, I could flip a table for that time, so yes we could accommodate. Two arrive before the rest of the party, accompanied it turned out by another pair of blokes, but they just sat by the door and I didn’t really even connect them with this charming young couple. “Name?” Henderson whatever. “Ah, yes, the table for eight. Let me just check that it’s ready.”
My manager pulls me by the elbow and says, “D’ye know who that is?”
I shake my head, give a knowing smile. “That’s not Prince. I know what he looks like.”
“No! The prince!”
“Oh.” Right, it was St Andrews in 2002-3, when the future King of England etc was studying Art History. And now he was my table.
Well, I got them sat, brought their friends through when they arrived – a very gallant and good-looking party altogether. Did what we’re all supposed to do in such situations, which means nothing special and treat them like any other table. On this particular Saturday night, that meant keeping them waiting 55 bloody minutes for their food because the kitchen was completely jammed and had half the staff it should have. William Himself was very low-key about it, though one of his double-barrelled English friends got a bit shirty with me, and I think we gave a free bottle of wine for the table.
(Since you’re interested: Wills wanted ham and pepperoni. He had wine through the evening but spaced each glass with a small bottle of lemonade, which I thought was quite correct. And he wanted chocolate ice cream, but I couldn’t give him any – I know, I know, off with his head etc. He had vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and made absolutely no fuss about it. And the attractive brunette that he came in with, who did all the talking with me at the beginning? She would be revealed to the world a year or so later as Kate Middleton, now mother of the third, fourth, and fifth in line for the throne. I knew before you did; so there.)
The result of these failures, however, was a five per cent tip at the end of the night, the bill split six ways (“No, ladies – we’ve got this”) between those gallant gentlemen and their charge cards. I won’t get into the unfair dynamics at play when the wait staff bear the brunt of kitchen collapses and management mismanagement – despite these legitimate reasons, it is we who suffer in tips, and that’s just the unfortunate end of it. I will say that the table of two right next to the party, who were sat about ten minutes before them and could see everything going on, chatted with me at the end of the evening and tipped in actual numbers the same amount as the prince and his friends. What was five per cent of a table of eight became… well, it’s not straight maths here, and I’m not one for telling tales out of school, but it took some of the bitterness away at the end of the night.
The management shambles continued. It was, as I say, a new resto when it opened, and we had a series of caretaker managers until the proper one was trained up and installed. Each time, we were corrected on how we were doing things – it was “not the Pizza Express way”. How many Pizza Express ways there could be, I was not eager to find out. As a full-time and resident staff member, I felt taken advantage of as scheduling bent over backwards to accommodate the students who needed to be away for this, for that. Working seven days in a row was common – the back five of one week and the first two of the next. Right through the Christmas holidays, since I wasn’t getting paid enough to fly us back across the Atlantic.
The signal worst was my New Year’s Eve Day shift, when the manager predicted a slow day. I mean, who’s going to be around, right? So just one wait staff, one chef, one kitchen porter. We got hammered, with lineup at the door from half an hour after opening right to 3:00. Go figure, no one else was even open for lunch, so it was a proper busy day and there was just me. I gave the shittiest service to all the customers, just coasting past their table to take an order and rush on past to the next in line between me and the kitchen. They could all see what was going on, and they weren’t too rude to me. But “think of all the tips” as consolation was poor consolation when you consider a) how off-my-feet I was and b) how relatively poor people are willing to tip in such conditions [see two paragraphs up -ed.] It wasn’t in itself the last straw, but it had me keeping my eyes open.
I did find new work, at an independent bistro up on College Street. Incidentally, I recognised one brunette who came in from time to time to study Art History over my cappuccinos. Hashtag just sayin etc.
And that was the end of my Pizza Express tenure. The name didn’t do it justice and made it very hard to explain to friends and family back home. It wasn’t downmarket and takeaway. The wine list, when I worked there, was all Italian, and there was a good level of classiness in opening and serving bottles at tables. The food was generic but acceptable. I had the space to show some personality and give people a special night out, so it was generally good. Certainly an income. Since returning to the UK, we have gone periodically for kids’ birthday parties or in a pinch with visiting parents. It’s that kind of place: reliable. But we’re spoiled right now, those of us privileged enough to be able to eat out somewhere from time to time. There are good options – some of the national chain recognisable variety, and some that may require people not to recognise what’s on the menu before they step inside. I’m sure they won’t be disappointed.