Canadian Pizza Magazine

Pizza from Hell lands in Vancouver

By Rosie Lombardi   

Features Profiles

Vancouverites are enjoying wickedly good pizza that may soon be tempting new customers in other Canadian cities.

Vancouverites are enjoying wickedly good pizza that may soon be tempting new customers in other Canadian cities.

hell 
Hell Pizza, a New Zealand-based franchise, finally arrived on North American shores last December with the opening of its first outlet in Vancouver. 


 

Hell Pizza, a franchise launched in New Zealand 13 years ago, finally arrived on North American shores last December with the opening of its first outlet in Vancouver. The chain already has almost 70 outlets scattered across New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Ireland, not to mention a global cult following. Now Hell Pizza hopes its flagship North American store in Vancouver will be the springboard for future expansion across the continent.

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Hell Pizza plays with a variety of devilish themes in its marketing and decor, but it’s all good clean fun. The restaurants feature custom wallpaper, lava lights, gothic benches, and creepy chandeliers.

Deliveries are made in coffin-shaped pizza boxes with the message, “For your remains,” and in New Zealand, the restaurants’ automated phone message says “Go to Hell.”

A memorable menu
As befits the theme, the menu is based around the Seven Deadly Sins. But Hell Pizza actually offers healthy, high-quality and alternative fare: whole wheat and gluten-free crusts, minimal oils and saturated fats, and specialty meats and sauces. Menu selections include unique combinations such as Pandemonium, made with chicken, camembert and cranberry sauce; Limbo, with mushrooms, blue cheese, and caramelized onions; and the vegan Sinister, made with refried beans, avocado, peppers and jalapenos.

“Some people look at our Grimm pizza and say ‘Whoa, I’m not sure about that’ – but when they try it, they love it,” says Steve Willis, a transplanted Kiwi and the franchise rights owner for Canada. “It has chicken, which we roast in-store, cream cheese, pine nuts and special apricot sauce that we import from New Zealand.”

Willis says he has his sights set on a second location in downtown Vancouver and possibly another in Calgary, but for now he is focused on growing the initial store.

“We just started our expansion, and we’re working through product changes and getting a feel for the Canadian market. It’s been an interesting first nine months, as we had to deal with the new HST tax and the Olympics.”

Despite the estimated 300,000 tourists they drew to Vancouver, the Games failed to bump up Hell Pizza’s business. Like many businesses in the city’s north end, the restaurant’s Lonsdale Avenue address placed it too far from the heart of Olympic action to make it a hot tourist spot.

Despite these challenges, Willis says he has been seeing about 20 new customers each week as word spreads about Hell’s sinfully good pizza. He expects that number will grow in the coming months.

“We’re waiting for winter to really kick off growth, as that’s pizza time, and kids are back from summer holidays.”

Culture shock
The menu at the Vancouver restaurant is mostly the same as what you’ll find at other Hell Pizza stores, although Willis did have to make a few minor changes to accommodate the Canadian palate.
One such change was to add a basic cheese and pepperoni pie to the chain’s repertoire. At the time, nothing like this was offered on the chain’s menu, which emphasizes weird and wonderful combinations.

“A lot of customers were asking for it, but we don’t really have that combination back home in New Zealand because it’s not popular,” Willis explains. “So we had a pepperoni specially made for us and added it to our menu.”

There are also some differences in the combinations that are most popular in Canada as compared to those most popular in New Zealand, Willis says.

“In Canada, the top two are Mordor, made with smokey barbecue sauce, pepperoni, bacon, chicken, and green peppers, and Brimstone, which is Cajun chicken, avocado, salsa, sour cream and onions. But back home, it’s Lust, the meat-lovers’ option, and Pandemonium.”

The key aspects of the brand are emphasis on the quality of the product and customer service levels that are much higher than other pizza franchises, he says. And, of course, the devilish ambiance.

“It’s a lot more interesting to go to a shop that’s not like ordinary pizza joints… People are intrigued by Hell’s craft and service, not just the decor.”

In New Zealand, the Hell franchise has got into trouble with Christian groups for its irreverent humour. Complaints were lodged with the national Advertising Standards Authority over use of the expression “Sell your soul” in Hell Pizza’s advertising, and over a campaign to promote its Lust pizza with branded condoms.

Willis says negative reactions in Canada have been on a smaller scale. “An 80-year-old lady slapped me for being a ‘devil-worshiper,’ and a priest told me he loved our pizzas but hated our brand.”

He says one of the key reasons Hell Pizza set up shop in Canada instead of the United States is its less polarized religious environment. “We’re testing the waters for North America. Some people may not understand that it’s just a marketing gimmick and we don’t actually worship devils. We’re just having a bit of a laugh at the lighter side of life. It’s about not taking things too seriously and having good food.”

According to Willis, the company is undaunted by complaints and is in fact planning to capitalize on them. “We quite enjoy complaints, and in New Zealand, they’re working to release a book of complaints so customers can have a read.”

The parent company has also faced challenges on the technology front. In July this year, a hacker broke into its customer database and stole customer phone numbers, home addresses, pizza orders and passwords. But the data did not include credit card or payment information.

To prevent future mishaps, the company is investing in upgrading its technology. “That old system doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m using a different system in Canada,” Willis explains. “New Zealand is doing a lot of development work with new features, but it’s not been released yet, so I can’t talk about it. Right now, we’re working on getting this new system to talk to ours.”

He says there are definitely big opportunities in Canada for Hell’s offerings. “We’ve been getting inquiries from Saskatoon and Montreal. We even did a special courier to a couple in Quebec City. There’s definitely nothing like us in Canada – we’re probably the opposite of what a pizza franchise should be. Our brand is hard to copy. There’s only one Hell.”


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