Pizza Express set to double number of eateries across Northern Ireland
Pizza Express is aiming to double its restaurant numbers here - with around six on the cards across Northern Ireland - creating more than 200 new jobs.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the chain's operations director Zoe Bowley - who is originally from Co Fermanagh - said it is eyeing up locations outside Belfast, as part of its big expansion here.
That could include locations such as Bangor, Newry, Carrickfergus, Londonderry and Enniskillen.
It will be launching two new Belfast restaurants next month. That includes one at St Anne's Square in the city centre, and a second in the Ballyhackamore area of east Belfast, creating 60 jobs.
"(Northern Ireland) is now ripe for investment. We've been here for 20 years...you get the brand to where people know us, and love us," Ms Bowley said.
"We think there is probably one more in Belfast, in the Titanic Quarter. We would then look to move out to Carrickfergus, Derry, Newry, Bangor.
"We talk in five-year plans. I think we don't ever have an end point. It's opportunities that we develop with the market.
"We've got a strong acquisition team that will bring us an opportunity every time there is a development in the market, or indeed, we have a target town list.
"We would identify markets which we would like to go in to...we never put a finite number."
While it's been for 20 years - opening its first store at Bedford Street in 1996 - Pizza Express only has three locations here, including Victoria Square and the Lisburn Road.
Pizza Express has more than 400 stores across the UK.
"We've even evaluated places like Enniskillen, where I'm originally from," she said.
Ms Bowley grew up in the small Co Fermanagh village of Tempo, before moving to Portstewart in her early teens.
She then moved back to England when she was 15.
Speaking about the performance of the restaurants in Northern Ireland, Pizza Express regional director, Graham Fenwick, said:
"(They have performed) exceptionally well. They are high-volume stores. Equal stores in the UK would perform at a less high sales rate.
"Over the last three years I have been involved in it, it's just been growing and growing... a strong customer base."
Aside from pizza, the chain sells a range of other Italian dishes, including risotto and polenta chips.
The new restaurants, which open early September, were fitted out by Carrickfergus firm McCue Crafted Fit.
The firm said it targeted St Anne's Square due to the building itself, and the type of businesses - including The Mac - that are based close-by.
Asked whether it's concerned about competing with nearby Coppi - a fellow Italian restaurant which has become a popular spot over the last few years - Mr Fenwick said he thinks Pizza Express "would be quite complementary".
"We will bring more people to this area, and the name carries a lot of weight to it," he said.
The restaurant, at the former Potted Hen, will compete against other spots such as House of Zen and Salt Bistro.
Ms Bowley said: "We can go in and punch above our weight with brands, and we also trade very successfully in other markets up against independents."
She said the success of the company was buoyed by many of its original ideas, created by founder Peter Boizot in the 1960s.
"The products he put on the menu are still there on the menu - down to the passata we put on the base. He sourced those from Italy, and we still use the same supplier."
Pizza Express has also started deliveries across Belfast. The company operates over 400 restaurants across the UK, along with 14 in the Republic of Ireland.