David Page didn’t quite bring pizza to the UK, but he did play a crucial role in making Pizza Express one of the country’s most popular places to eat in the 1980s and 90s.
But his journey to becoming boss of the famous pizza chain – and owner of other restaurant groups such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Franco Manca – was far from conventional, and characterised by a penchant for doing things his own way.
Now 65 years old, the serial restaurateur recalls a time when, in the mid-80s, he went to ask for a £2m business loan, only to be met with incredulity from his bank manger because he was wearing slipper-like espadrilles.
“I wasn’t wearing any socks either!”, the Londoner says with a chuckle. “He couldn’t quite believe it, but he still lent me the money.”
As a younger man, few would have guessed that David would go on to run some of the UK’s best-known restaurant chains.
In 1969 he was expelled from his Jesuit-run secondary school Wimbledon College in southwest London, for what he politely describes as “truancy”.
David then tried to become a cartographer at the Ordnance Survey, the UK’s mapping agency, but his refusal to cut his hair or wear a tie resulted in another parting of the ways.
Next he began training to become a teacher, and washed dishes at his local Pizza Express in south London to make ends meet. The first Pizza Express had opened in central London in 1965, and by the early 1970s it had a handful of branches across the capital.
David says he soon realised that working in the restaurant industry was his true calling, and when the opportunity to become a Pizza Express branch manager arose he soon ditched the classroom.
By 1981 he had bought the franchise to operate a Pizza Express in Chiswick, west London.
“If you fancied learning how to become a capitalist you became a franchisee,” says David, who took out a second mortgage to fund that investment.
“I didn’t know what a capitalist was – my parents were socialists, so capitalism was a very dirty word.”
David, who went on to open many more franchises over the next decade, says Pizza Express was “pioneering” in the 1980s, and a breath of fresh air in England’s then rather bland food scene.
He even recalls getting a letter from an “unbelievably delighted customer” in Banstead, Surrey, who proclaimed the opening of the town’s Pizza Express was the most exciting thing to happen there since the library was bombed in 1942.
By the time Pizza Express was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1993, David and three business partners had 25 franchises that formed the biggest part of the newly-listed company.
Despite claiming not to have known what a balance sheet was back then, David became chief executive and later chairman, during which time Pizza Express grew to about 300 outlets – mostly in the UK, but a few in other countries, such as the US, as well.
The chain was then sold in 2003 to a number of private equity firms for £278m. Today Pizza Express is owned by China’s Hony Capital, and has branches in 11 countries.
After leaving Pizza Express David went on to co-found restaurant parent group Clapham House, whose chains included Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Bombay Bicycle Club and Tootsies.
Another decent payday came in 2010 when Clapham House was bought by South African chilli chicken chain Nandos for £30m.
But rather than take early retirement, the then 58-year-old David started looking for the next restaurant opportunity.
His attention was drawn to a small artisan pizza shop called Franco Manca that had opened in Brixton, south London, in 2009.
With customers queuing around the block for its wood fired and sourdough pizzas, David says that he and his team were “fans of the concept from day one”.
They soon invested in Franco Manca to help it expand, and in 2015 David’s new investment group Fulham Shore bought a majority stake for £27.5m.
There are now 40 Franco Manca outlets, mostly in London. David personally designs each restaurant, keeping the sites compact to ensure no space is wasted.
But things haven’t all gone according to plan for the restaurateur, whose Fulham Shore also owns the Real Greek restaurants.
He says he has passed up on countless opportunities to invest in successful ventures, including Krispy Kreme donuts, the Caffe Nero coffee shop chain, and food delivery business Deliveroo – which he decided “would never work”.
David also says that Brexit – the UK’s decision and continuing path towards leaving the European Union – was a “major disruption” to both Franco Manca and the Real Greek, and the UK’s restaurant sector in general.
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He says this is because the weaker pound has pushed up raw material prices, and fewer Europeans are coming to the UK, making it harder to recruit staff.
In addition David says that the wider public are now going out for fewer meals as UK economic growth has slowed. Back in September Fulham Shore issued a profit warning and said it was putting the brakes on expansion plans.
Roger Tejwani, a restaurant sector analyst at stockbrokers Finncap, says that the current trading environment is “tough” for firms like Fulham Shore.
However, he adds that he is confident of the group’s longer-term prospects, partly because it has such an experienced management team who have all “seen this movie several times before”.
When asked if there is a secret to his success, David answers: “It’s not just me.” Instead he has worked with the same team for the past two decades and says it’s “one big happy family really”.
While Franco Manca may never have quite the global reach of Pizza Express, which its new owners hope will turn China onto pizza, he thinks it has potential beyond the UK.
In a case of coals to Newcastle, the chain already has a summer outpost on the Italian island of Salina, north of Sicily, where founder Giuseppe Mascoli has a house.
As David says: “Everybody loves pizza, all around the world.”