Hell Pizza is firing up in Korea, 15 years after it first started selling pizzas in Wellington's Kelburn squash club.
The irreverent takeaway joints are now spread around the world, including franchises in Canada, Britain and India.
Director Stu McMullin says its master franchisor in Korea – backed by entrepreneur Yong-Seok Kang, who previously headed up a pharmaceutical company specialising in horse-cloning – will open its third Hell store in the South Korean capital Seoul next month. It also has plans for a further seven "pilot" stores there. New Zealand has 65 Hell outlets, he says, but such is the scale of Korea that Seoul, with a population of about 20 million, could end up with 100.
A Hell Pizza shop in New Zealand has a catchment area of about 10,000 households, which is usually about 25,000 people, McMullin says, but there were that many people living in just four apartment towers across the road from its first Hell store in Korea.
"The numbers just blow you away."
The two Korean stores, which opened in August and November, "are doing OK", and turning over between $12,000 and $15,000 a week, McMullin says.
"It's going to take one to two years to build critical mass. The second store was busier than the first upon opening, so that's a good sign."
The company has not had to revise any of its pizzas to suit Korean tastebuds, but its menu has shrunk. "They don't like a huge amount of choice. We have 21 pizzas here; they only have about 11."
A large proportion of Korea is Christian, and Koreans are well exposed to American culture, so concepts such as hell and Halloween are not lost on them, he says.
But Hell's relaxed Kiwi approach is not a perfect fit with Korean culture and it has introduced a slightly softer version of its often controversial brand there.
"The thing they struggle with a little bit is brand personality. We pick up the phone and say `How the hell are ya?' but they are very proper and very organised."
There have been a few local quirks to learn, McMullin says. For example, a bylaw that says a business' signage can't be bigger than that of the business on their left. "They had to shrink down our logo for the first store but then for the second store there was no one on the left, so we were fine."
Hell is proud of its expansion – it does not look to enter new markets but waits for prospective franchisors to make an approach – but is realistic about its overseas prospects, McMullin says.
"They're not overnight sensations. I'd be giving them two to three years and then have a look. We work hard at our business but not everything is going to succeed every time."
HELL'S pizza bar opened in New Delhi about a year ago, with a heavily vegetarian menu.
"It's also going OK.
"The thing there is the ground rent is humungous, because you've got so many people on so little land. They're paying about $15,000 a month in rent; for some of our shops here that's what we pay in a year.
"The other problem there is bribes: our guy there pays thousands of dollar a month to the cops, council, local officials ... you name it."
The global recession has taken a toll on Hell. Its franchise in Ireland is changing hands after its master franchisor pulled out last month, and McMullin and fellow directors Callum Davies and Warren Powell are preparing to take over the Australian franchise after a difficult few years that saw its Australian franchisee slash the number of outlets there from 10 to two.
Business has been rosier back home. Its Masterton store broke Hell records when it turned over about $50,000 in its opening week this winter. But McMullin says it has now probably reached saturation in New Zealand.
The company is looking to introduce new store models to help grow sales here – the details of which are firmly under wraps for the moment.
One plan is to franchise its Hell on Wheels caravans – which currently service big events in Wellington and Auckland, he says.
"You'd only have a small initial outlay and then you could cruise around different towns."
The company has courted public controversy on numerous occasions, including in 2006 when condoms mailed out to promote its "Lust" meat pizza attracted a record 685 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.
"Our strategy has always been to be noisy in the market. Controversial has always come with us but it's never been our aim."
McMullin says Hell is a lot bigger now, but little has changed since the days of serving university students out of the Kelburn squash club.
FROM KELBURN TO KOREA
Established in 1996, was sold to Burger King owner Tasman Pacific Foods in 2006,then bought back in 2009 by current directors Stu McMullin, Callum Davies and Warren Powell.
Now in Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain 65 shops in New Zealand.
Takes 50,000 to 60,000 orders – roughly equivalent to 120,000 pizzas – a month in New Zealand 40 to 50 per cent of its New Zealand business is delivery orders Busiest store is Hell Pizza on Cuba St.
"Wellington is the strongest Hell territory in New Zealand, it's the home of Hell."
Making a splash online: Its Deliver me to Hell YouTube game has been viewed about 19 million times, and the company has taken over 2 million orders online in New Zealand.
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