Carol Emmas interviews General Manager Chad Rigby and Group Chef George Zappa about working at the anti-establishment Pizza Punks on Bold Street with a positive ethos and brilliant menu to match
If you’re going to design a themed high-concept restaurant by AI, then Pizza Punks could easily slot into such a model. With all things ‘punk’ as its ethos and a thesaurus of anarchist synonyms that pepper its website, you might be surprised to find it’s a restaurant that likes to say yes.
General Manager, Chad Rigby and Group Chef, George Zappa have only good words to say about the anti-establishment sentiment behind the independent they work for. “We’re like one big family. We look out for each other. We care about delivering for the customers and about delivering for the team as well,” says Chad. “Everyone who comes in here realises we’ve got a personality. We’re not like a corporate chain that just gives you the pizza and says bye,” he adds. “People feel like the staff are their friends and that shows in our reviews.”
Often, people will come in and ask for all toppings. Or, they’ll come in ask for something specific. We say yes. The whole vibe of the company is an attitude of saying yes.
A fast-growing chain, its Liverpool venue is the 7th to open last October, with a 170-cover space. While the website might also give the impression the chain might have been started by a couple of surf dudes in a VW Camper, its owners are much more corporate and brand-aware than that. The brand’s big boss, Brad Stevens, began Pizza Punks in 2016. Stevens is also founder/CEO of the positively named, Hell Yeah Hospitality Group, which in addition, operates the other concept restaurants, Veganizza and Mamasan. You know some serious staff training has gone on at Pizza Punks because the staff seem to be 100% invested. According to Chad and George, it is because Stevens is invested in the staff too.
“When Brad comes in, he’ll say hello to everyone personally and ask how they are doing,” says, George. “KP, sous chef, bar staff. It doesn’t matter who, he’ll spend time with them. That helps us to have the same attitude to everyone too. It bleeds through.”
The same level of upbeat positivity goes with the food offering. There is an unlimited topping bespoke pizza category at £12.95, so you can fashion your own with as many as you like. “We had one couple come in recently and order every topping. They used it like a tapas, eating each with a bit of crust. It was brilliant,” says George. “Often, people will come in and ask for all toppings. Or, they’ll come in ask for something specific. We say yes. The whole vibe of the company is an attitude of saying yes. We try to give people exactly what they ask for, within reason, of course.”
In terms of its house punk style, along with regular “kick-ass” live music and DJ sets, wines, craft beers, mocktails and cocktails, it also offers what it defines as, punk pizzas. For example, beef shin ragu, buffalo chicken, garlic and rosemary roast potatoes or caramelised pineapple. I don’t know what makes these pizzas punk. I’m sure Johnny Rotten might have differing ideas of this cultural appropriation, but, I’m going with it for now. In addition, there is a range of pizza classics at £12.95 for a 12”. Again, I’m going with it, in terms of whether a cheeseburger pizza can be defined as a being a pizza classic. I’ll put it down to my age.
All the pizzas are made from a sourdough base and sourced from the famous Boudin Bakery in San Francisco. The sourdough is handmade in-house and double fermented for a minimum of 48 hours to generate maximum flavour. George says he has three buckets of sourdough starters and he names and chats to them. “I go in every morning and say: ‘How are you?’ Then give them a little shake to see how they’re doing. There is Miss Piggy, she’s all frothy, overflowing and always hungry. Plus, Bert and Ernie, they can be a bit funny.” George’s background as a chef has been predominantly pizza. “I just love it,” he says. “My dad used to take me to Est, Est, Est when I was a kid, so pizza was a massive part of my childhood. I was fascinated by the pizza toppings even back then. When I got into cheffing, I realised there weren’t that many pizza chefs around and thought maybe I shouldn't, but I naturally fell into it.”
As Group Chef, it means he visits the other sites and is comfortable with that because of the way the business is run. “I can jump in the kitchen of any of the sites and it’s the same vibe and the attitude is the same. That’s because we hire people who have a similar outlook. It works for us.”
Taking part in the finals of the National Pizza Awards is the next thing the company can look forward to. George tells me about his entry which is a curry-based one based on his dad’s love for curry and his own love for pizza. It involves slow-roasted tandoori lamb and a peshwari naan base, plus pickles and raita toppings. I’m sold straight away. “We’re already in the top 16 pizzerias in the country, just by getting into the finals,” he adds. “It’s brilliant to be a part of it because we are such a young company and it's an honour to be considered alongside so many fantastic brands. Everyone who is anyone in pizza attends this event.”
Even though Pizza Punks promotes sticking a finger up to the corporate chains by putting people and products before profit, it’s a business. It has to make money and that’s pretty tricky in today’s cost of living crisis when the squeeze is on so many. I hope too, it sticks to its guns and remains an independent chain. Not bought out by the anonymous and faceless, as so many independent restaurants are these days. Even Johnny Rotten sold out on punk to do a Country Life butter advert when he wanted the dosh.