Making Dough: Tamer Elkhayat

Pinza co-founder Tamer Elkhayat discusses how he plans to take the home-grown pizza brand global
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Tamer Elkhayat isn’t a 9-5, shirt and tie kind of manager. When we meet to discuss his Dubai-born Pinza brand, he looks relaxed in a plain t-shirt, comfortable trousers and Common Projects trainers. But there’s nothing common about project Pinza.

A pizza (sort of) chain without a storefront, it survives solely on home delivery. Launching in Dubai’s Business Bay in 2015, and now has four sites across the UAE - three in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi. Now 2018 marks Pinza’s first foray overseas, with two kitchens in London helping to serve customers in another of the world’s most cosmopolitan markets.

What Pinza sells is essentially a healthier version of pizza. But for co-founder Elkhayat it’s different enough for him to say that “we don’t have a competitor on the market. If you want to have a Pinza, you’re going to have a Pinza. If you want to have pizza, you’re going to have one of the other competitors that compete with each other.”

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To create something that stood out in a well-trodden marketplace, Elkhayat and his business partners — “two of my best friends” — ventured to the home of pizza, Italy, and set about finding the perfect recipe for their key ingredient, dough. That formula is now patented and can only be used by Pinza. Something Elkhayat laughs about as he tells us of several rivals phoning up his supplier asking for details on what Pinza use and about attempts to reverse engineer it.

Elkhayat doesn’t need to worry about his supplier betraying him. Perhaps the most important part of Pinza’s success has been the strength of its relationships with its partners. When the co-founders discovered the factory in Rome who could make the dough just as they liked it, they invested in them. They have a warehouse in Milan through which all their ingredients travel. The signature Pinza box is made by a local company in Dubai; even for the latest Pinza kitchens in London.

“I don’t use packaging from London because no one was able to replicate what I had,” explains Elkhayat. “Everyone thought I was crazy spending so much money on my branding… but that’s my brand. So we ship containers with the packaging.

“He’s a good supplier. He gives me everything on time, the best product, so why would I go and change it?”

Unsurprisingly for a food company without a storefront, Pinza has a strong working relationship with Deliveroo, who Elkhayat calls “an important strategic partner”.

He says: “Our plan with Deliveroo is to expand, so the bigger they get the faster we can scale with them. Why do we choose Deliveroo as a platform? We believe in Will Shu, who’s the co-founder of Deliveroo, and his vision and what he’s trying to achieve.

“We spent quite some time discussing a lot of things and he believes in what we do, he believes in us, and he’s given us a platform to showcase our product.”

That belief included the idea that Pinza would thrive in London.

It wasn’t an easy ride, however. In the wake of Brexit, the challenges involved in launching a company in London increased and Elkhayat calls it “one of the most difficult markets".

Top of the list of challenges was building a team in London, with different employee rights making it a tougher situation than he was used to in Dubai.

He explains: “When you hire someone here you have a contract of two years. You have a two-year visa so it’s really hard to terminate your contract. There [London], there is absolutely nothing. You do a contract and then they say here’s my week’s notice and I’m out.”

Eventually Elkhayat built a team he was proud of and who themselves were proud of working for the Pinza brand, but it was a tough time for someone who prides himself on his ability to train and retain staff. It’s clear that he is grateful for the team he has across all the Pinza locations.

He says: “I always say ‘do me and my partner play a big role in the company?’ Absolutely we do, but I wouldn’t have done this without the team so the team is my biggest asset. Look at the World Cup. You have the best players in the world, Ronaldo and Messi, were they able to win it? There was no teamwork.

“I empower my team, I’ve developed them and for me that’s rewarding. When I see someone coming into the staff and they keep getting promoted and promoted and now I have someone that’s moving to London, that’s like a dream come true. Now they see that it’s not a job, it’s more of a career, and that’s what I’m trying to build here — a culture.”

Elkhayat is aware that the best way to encourage that culture is to lead from the front. When the team in London wasn’t coming together, Elkhayat rolled up his sleeves and rolled out the dough himself. When he sees someone make their 10th order, it’s on the house with no publicity. When someone messages a Pinza social media page or leaves a review, it’s Elkhayat who answers.

“One guy messaged at 12.30am on Facebook messenger saying ‘Can I place an order?’ I’m like ‘Absolutely, how can we help?’ He was shocked. He was trying to sell me a service that people want to order through messenger but nobody is replying back. So when I replied back immediately he said ‘You’re the first!’”

Elkhayat laughs — but admits he just happened to be awake at the right time. However, 10 years in hospitality with Four Seasons hotels left an indelible mark on him, and he firmly believes, whether it’s with staff or with customers, in the golden rule: treat people the way that you want to be treated.

It’s far from the only example of Elkhayat going above and beyond to keep Pinza running successfully. When opening the London locations it wasn’t just staff he had a problem with. One of the popular ingredients on the menu is a vegan sausage that can only be purchased in Seattle and Pinza gets imported. Unable to get any sent to London in time, Elkhayat boarded a plane with 50kg of his special ingredient.

“It was crazy. They stopped me at the airport and were like ‘What is this?’ I said ‘I’m vegan, I cannot find this in London. I’m here for a month and it’s all I eat!’ The guy is like ‘Do you have a note from a doctor?’ I said ‘No, I didn’t know, this is my food. I don’t have my clothes, I only have my food!’

“It worked out. I got lucky. So now I’m trying to find a doctor who can prescribe it for me,” he jokes.

With London’s teething problems solved, it’s time for Elkhayat and his partners to consider the next step for Pinza. Over the course of our conversation, franchising comes up a number of times, but it’s clear that he is still in two minds about the idea.

Despite Pinza never suggesting the opportunity, interest in franchising is already high, including a request from New York, and they could “grow to 100 locations tomorrow” such is the demand. However, Elkhayat cites companies that failed to franchise correctly as a stark warning of what could happen and at the moment he’s focused on other things.

“This is my time now to build a team,” he says. “If I want to scale or franchise down the line, which I’m not even thinking about, I want to have a proper system in place.

“Maybe I want my kids to run [Pinza]. Who knows?”

One thing that is, almost, for sure is that a physical Pinza location is coming soon. But Elkhayat is pragmatic about the risks, saying: “Having a storefront comes with a lot of costs: front-of-house staff, you need a prime location, and every seat needs to generate revenue for you. Having empty seats is a killer.

“In Dubai we’re going to have a physical store probably by the second quarter next year, maybe before, and that will create a real destination.”

As we leave we ask Elkhayat what the rest of the day holds. “I’m going to go visit around the sites.”

Uh-oh, should we warn the staff he’s coming? “No, no it’s not like that. They like me,” he says, and you tend to believe him.

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