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Smoke + Ash: “We think the whole concept of pizza can be pushed”

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Founders of Birmingham-based pizzeria Smoke + Ash on their first year as restaurateurs

Related tags Smoke + Ash Birmingham Pizza Generation Next Casual dining

The founders of Birmingham-based pizzeria Smoke + Ash have learnt a lot in their first year as restaurateurs, and now they’re looking to parlay that knowledge into long-term success.

When Clare and Paul Collins chose to swap the corporate world for hospitality and launch their very first restaurant in the upmarket Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston last year, they knew it would be a challenge. Opening a new restaurant is never easy, especially when it’s your first one, but doing so amid a cost-of-living crisis, where rampant cost price inflation looms large, is a whole different beast.

A year on, though, and the Collins have landed on their feet. The restaurant in question, Smoke + Ash, has proved popular with Birmingham locals, serving in the region of 25,000 pizzas, (roughly 7.5km of freshly made dough) and holds near-perfect ratings on both TripAdvisor and Google Reviews.

Congratulations on completing your first year as restaurateurs. How do you reflect on that milestone?
Clare: ​It’s been a huge learning curve. The enormity of it really makes you appreciate the more rigid structure we had working in the corporate world. Not having that safety net here has forced us to learn stuff at a significantly faster rate. It’s never plain sailing, but we’ve built a solid brand. We have a great reputation, and we’re getting great feedback from customers. So, in that sense it’s been pretty positive overall.

What’s been the biggest challenge to overcome?
Clare: ​It can be a hard sector to navigate, especially when you’re a new business. There’s been some pinch points when it comes to staffing; it’s a very transient industry and finding pizza chefs, in particular, is becoming increasingly difficult. Overcoming cost pressures has also been a challenge. There’s so much that the restaurant trade is having to absorb, and when it comes to pizza there’s a limit to what you can charge the customer. To have a profitable business you find yourself looking beyond the limits of what people are willing to swallow on their bill.
Paul: ​We’ve had to be clever. The restaurant is super busy on Fridays and Saturdays, but quieter during the week and lunch trade can be very limited. We’ve had to make sure we have an eye on our gross profit all the times and keep a lid on costs.

How has Smoke + Ash changed over the course of its first year?
Paul: ​We’re fine-tuning it every day. What’s important has been making sure we react to what’s happening in the local market and keep ahead of it. Birmingham has had so many new entries in the pizza space since we launched. Rudy's Pizza has opened two new sites in the city this year, including one that’s right near us. We were so worried about that, but it hasn’t impacted the business. We’re small and nimble; we can be quick to introduce promotions to encourage more diners in, and we’ve worked hard on our customer experience to make sure they want to come back. There’s always someone new opening in Birmingham, so clearly people think they can make a success of it.


Is delivery a core part of the business?
Paul: ​It’s an added extra. We didn’t initially have it as part of our business plan, but we partnered with Deliveroo early on and we turn it on and off when it suits us. We have a good relationship with them and that means we’re picked out to be part of promotions, which opens us out to a broader market. That’s also feeding our desire to grow the business, as now we’re thinking about opening a dark kitchen in the future. We only have a small kitchen in the restaurant and sometimes we do £1,000 of sales via delivery in a night, so it would be beneficial to take that side of the business and manage it separately.

Tell us about your plans for expansion
Paul: ​In our fourth month we realised our site was very small, so now we are talking to the landlord about also taking over the adjoining space, which would give us the opportunity to double the size of the dining room. Further down the line we’d love to open more sites. Our dream is to have three or four restaurants dotted around the Midlands. However, we’re also looking to explore other avenues of growth. We think the whole concept of pizza can be pushed. We’ve hosted pizza masterclasses, which have sold out every time, and we’re going to do a tasting menu this month in partnership with a local wine bar that’ll pair whiskey and pizza. It’s about showing diners that we’re more than just another pizza restaurant.

What advice would you give to new restaurateurs looking to start their own business?
Paul: ​Trust your partner. Me and Clare have been together 24 years. We trust each other and we have each other’s back, and that’s key. We didn’t just jump into this, we did so much research, but once you open the doors everything can change in an instant and you need to be working with someone you can rely on.
Clare:​ You must be flexible about everything. You might think you have a perfect business model, but you won’t. The restaurant industry is so unpredictable, and you need contingency plans in order to react to that.

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