The 2021 Pizza Power Report: How Pizzeria Operators Can Thrive in the Coming Year

In 2020, the pizza business showed it's recession-proof and pandemic-proof, offering hope—and lessons in survival—for other segments of the restaurant industry.

By Rick Hynum

Looking back on 2020, it’s hard to tally up everything that went wrong. The pandemic cast a gloomy shadow over the nation, while civic unrest heated up and spilled into city streets. Wildfires raged across the western United States. Beloved heroes, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Herman Cain and John Lewis to Little Richard and Kobe Bryant, shuffled off their mortal coils. We even lost Eddie Van Halen, for heaven’s sake. And then there were the hurricanes—so many hurricanes.  

The news wasn’t that much better for many in the restaurant industry. While politicians in D.C. bickered and postured over COVID-19 relief packages, municipal and state leaders faced well-nigh impossible choices for dealing with outbreaks. At a loss, they resorted to ofttimes draconian restrictions and lockdowns that put a choke hold on restaurateurs already barely getting by on the thinnest of margins. Many stores planned to shut their doors only temporarily but never reopened. Others made a go of it by pivoting to delivery and carryout while also innovating with meal kits and even groceries for their stuck-at-home customers.

It has been our spring, summer and fall of discontent, with winter coming on. Yet most pizzeria owners bounced back, and many thrived, displaying a fighting spirit and resilience that powered communities through an unprecedented period of crisis. Independent operators in particular proved their mettle, as this year’s sales figures show. While their non-pizza restaurant counterparts struggled to deliver food that simply wasn’t meant to travel, pizzeria operators stood at the ready with the world’s most delicious comfort food. Many saw their sales hold steady or even shoot up.

Yes, 2020 was bad, and it was scary. But it could have been much worse for the pizza industry. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

In an effort to boost its lunch business, Papa John’s rolled out a sandwich-pizza hybrid called the Papadia in 2020.

Holding Steady

Back in May, when dine-in service had been shut down around most of the nation, market research company Sense360 reported that pizzerias had experienced a 5% drop in year-over-year sales while recording a larger per-dollar order increase compared to quick-service and fast-casual competitors—an 11% jump for pizza vs. 9% for quick-service and 8% for fast-casual. Around the same time, a Datassential survey found that 63% of consumers said they were seeking out pizza during the pandemic—comfort food indeed.

Sales figures from research firm CHD Expert show that pizza sales rebounded as the country reopened for business. Total U.S. pizza industry sales for the period from October 2019 through September 2020 came to $46,247,156,519, a mere 0.20% decline from $46,337,969,390 for October 2018 through September 2019. That’s barely a smidgen of difference.

And here’s the better news: Total sales for independent pizzerias actually went up by 0.58%, from $18,531,653,876 in the October 2018 to September 2019 period to $18,639,852,788 this year. Sales for the pizza chains didn’t fare quite as well, dropping 0.72%, from last year’s $27,806,315,514 to $27,607,303,732 this year.

At the same time, average pizza store sales went down a wee bit across the board. Total average store sales ended up at $592,214, down 0.67% from the October 2018 to September 2019 figure of $596,181. Average store sales for independents fell 0.15%, from $445,762 to $445,088. The chains’ average store sales took a slightly harder hit, dropping from $769,171 to $762,359.

Closures of hometown pizzerias often made headlines this year, but newcomers waited in the wings. CHD Expert found that the total number of pizza locations nationwide actually went up—from 77,724 to 78,092, a nudge of 0.47%. The number of independent pizzerias rose from 41,573 to 41,879, while the chains added a few stores, too, from 36,151 to 36,213.

Some Domino’s stores now use custom e-bikes for faster and more efficient delivery.

In other words, the pizza industry as a whole turned out to be both recession-proof and pandemic-proof. Sadly, we can’t say the same for non-pizza restaurants. A National Restaurant Association (NRA) survey released in September found that, across all segments of the restaurant industry, nearly one in six stores had closed either permanently or for the long term since March. That comes to nearly 100,000 eateries erased from their communities six months into the pandemic. Nearly 3 million employees were still out of work at that time, and the restaurant industry as a whole was on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of 2020.

Technomic projects that the pizza category will register the strongest sales performance of any menu type in 2020,” says Kevin Schimpf, Technomic’s senior research manager. “Going into the pandemic, the pizza category was clearly better positioned to deal with dine-in restrictions than other menu categories.”

Worse news: Forty percent of restaurateurs surveyed in September said their restaurants would likely shut down in the next six months if they didn’t get help from the federal government. And that help never came. “This survey reminds us that independent owners and small franchisees don’t have time on their side,” said Sean Kennedy, NRA’s executive vice president of public affairs, in a statement. “The ongoing disruptions and uncertainty make it impossible for these owners to plan for next week, much less next year.”

The Unbreakable Chains 

Pre-pandemic, to no one’s surprise, the major pizza chains continued to lead the nation’s independent and small-chain pizzerias in total sales. According to 2019 year-end sales figures (the latest available at press time) from Technomic, the big chains accounted for $27.6 billion in overall national sales, while independents and small chains raked in $18.6 billion. The top performers among the chains were the usual suspects—Domino’s at No. 1, followed by Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, Papa John’s and Papa Murphy’s.

But Seattle-headquartered MOD Pizza has the edge in terms of fastest growth, Technomic reports. MOD’s sales climbed from $390.7 million in 2018 to $483.5 million in 2019, an increase of 23.75%. MOD added 52 units, growing from 395 to 467 stores. Founded by Scott and Ally Svenson, MOD Pizza is known as much for its philanthropy and focus on social change as for its pizza—an important consideration for socially conscious millennials. The company and its franchisees donated nearly $2 million to more than 9,000 local and national charities in 2019 while deepening its commitment to hiring low-income youths, the formerly incarcerated, and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Krazy Hog BBQ in Chicago, owned by Victor and Dana Cooksey, was the first restaurant to benefit from DoorDash’s Reopen for Delivery program, which helps restaurants reboot as delivery-only operations.

Domino’s remained at the top of the heap in terms of overall sales, with more than $7 billion, followed by Pizza Hut ($5.58 billion), Little Caesars ($3.77 billion), Papa John’s ($2.63 billion) and Papa Murphy’s Pizza ($748.35 million).

Pandemic or no pandemic, Domino’s fared so well in 2020 that it went on a hiring spree, adding 10,000 workers shortly after the crisis began and 20,000 more in the late summer. Papa John’s also took on 30,000 more employees in 2020 while mounting a comeback for the ages. After a prolonged slump that started with scandals surrounding founder John Schnatter in 2018, Papa John’s sales stats have steadily grown this year. For its second quarter in 2020, the company reported that its margins and profits were “the highest they have been in several years,” while unit closures remained low.

For Pizza Hut, 2020 brought good news and bad news. The company reported a record-breaking week of off-premise sales in early May and, like Domino’s, added 30,000 employees to meet increased demand. But it had to temporarily close more than 1,000 Pizza Hut Express units due to the pandemic. Perhaps the hardest blow came when NPC International, Pizza Hut’s largest U.S. franchisee, with more than 1,200 stores, filed for Chapter 11.

Marco’s Pizza aims to sharpen its focus on off-premise sales by pilot-testing ghost kitchens in California, North Carolina and Houston.

Turning On to Off-Premise

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that off-premise dining—Domino’s and Papa John’s bread and butter—is the way of the near-future. “COVID-19 has accelerated the growth of the delivery space [by] several years,” says Alex Blum, founder and CEO of Relay, a back-end delivery service that offers an alternative to third-party giants like Grubhub and Uber Eats. “Both customers and merchants that were reluctant [about] delivery are now accustomed to it. This behavior will likely continue, even after COVID-19.”

Demand for delivery had been surging long before the pandemic hit, even among fast-food chains. According to research firm Euromonitor, global delivery sales more than doubled between 2014 and 2019. “Five years from now, it will be rare to find a restaurant that does not offer delivery in some capacity,” Blum says.

That means smaller pizza operators need to get up-to-date on ordering technologies, stat, or risk losing to the Taco Bells and Burger Kings down the street. Tech company Bluedot’s “The State of What Feeds Us” survey, released in August, found a significant spike in usage of restaurant mobile apps during the pandemic. Bluedot’s April survey found that 51% of customers were using a mobile app; that number shot up to 64% by July. Overall, 88% of the survey’s respondents said they now use mobile apps more often to order food, groceries and other products.

A big chunk of that food-delivery windfall is going to third-party aggregators, which have been both a well-documented boon and a bane to the pizza industry. In a June study by Service Management Group, a global customer, patient and employee experience management partner, nearly half of the respondents had ordered delivery from a third-party service in the past three months. But the study also found the majority of restaurant customers still preferred to pick up their orders. Seventy-five percent reported using a drive-through in the previous 90 days, 55% had tried carryout, and 51% had given curbside pickup a go.

These numbers suggest customers trust their favorite restaurants more than the big aggregators. And they also suggest that pizzerias offering a wide array of contactless options—from curbside and drive-through pickup to old-school doorstep drop-offs—are on the right track and should stay the course in 2021.

ChefReady offers 10 high-tech, customizable kitchens for virtual restaurant brands, plus software that aggregates third-party platforms and food runners to bring the orders to delivery drivers waiting outside.

Seeing Ghosts

Speaking of the off-premise boom, 2020 turned a little spooky as ghost kitchens—specialized facilities for delivery-only restaurant models—materialized around the country. A September 17 article in The Washington Post reported that the pandemic-related surge in food delivery “has made ghost kitchens and virtual eateries one of the only growth areas in the restaurant industry.” Michael Shafer, Technomic’s global lead for food and beverage, told the newspaper that there were about 1,500 ghost kitchens operating in the U.S., and Euromonitor International predicted this model could create a $1 trillion global market by 2030.

Ghost kitchens—also called cloud kitchens or virtual kitchens—go hand in hand with virtual restaurants, which exist only online. Case in point: CEC Entertainment, owner of the kid-friendly Chuck E. Cheese chain. When CEC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June, it had an ace up its sleeve—Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings, a new delivery-only brand that snuck in under the radar on third-party platforms nationwide in 2020. Most customers who ordered from Pasqually’s initially knew nothing about its relationship with Chuck E. Cheese—and CEC Entertainment wasn’t telling. But guess what? Virtual brand Pasqually’s shares kitchen space with brick-and-mortar brand Chuck E. Cheese, making for a cozy arrangement that has enjoyed some success thus far.

Still, switching to an efficient delivery-only model isn’t as easy as it sounds, says Deb Friar, field marketing manager for New Port Richey, Florida-based Welbilt, which provides equipment for ghost kitchens. “Many operators believe they can simply transfer equipment and processes to make the move from dine-in to delivery-only, but they often fall short in meeting the unique customer expectations for delivery,” Friar notes. Speed and consistency are essential to delivery success, she says, “but traditional restaurant kitchens have not traditionally been designed for speed.”

Related: Pizzeria owners should keep up with these technology trends in 2021

Marco’s Pizza, headquartered in Toledo, Ohio, hopes to solve that problem as it pilots ghost kitchens for franchisees in California, North Carolina and Houston. “These virtual or ghost kitchens are all about efficiency in a shared kitchen space, which also allows us to easily use third-party delivery drivers and provide a quick-to-open format,” says Ron Stilwell, Marco’s vice president and chief development officer.

Steven Malach, director of sales for ChefReady, checks out new exhaust hoods installed in the company’s ghost kitchen facility in Denver. Nili Malach Poynter (inset) co-founded ChefReady, a large ghost kitchen facility in Denver, with her husband, Robert.

Nili Malach Poynter, who co-founded Denver-based ChefReady with her husband, Robert, would surely agree. In July, ChefReady unveiled a facility that offers 10 high-tech, customizable ghost kitchen spaces under one roof—all for delivery-only concepts. The company says its facility “offers a way for restaurants to maximize their delivery footprint” and “also decreases risk to restaurants during financial crises.” Their first client is a pizza shop, no less: McKinners Pizza, which already has a brick-and-mortar location in Littleton, Colorado.

ChefReady’s kitchens are “plug and play,” equipped with commercial hoods, sinks, electric and gas hookups, even pest control. The company provides software that aggregates third-party delivery platforms as well as food runners to bring the orders from individual stations to delivery drivers. “For years, Robert and I watched restaurant-owner friends close their brick-and-mortar restaurants due to declining profit margins and rising rent, so we were excited to hear about the ghost-kitchen concept,” Nili says. “But we realized that many operate with a ‘churn and burn’ mentality, resulting in an unprofitably high tenant turnover. We decided to create a company that offers the convenience of a ghost kitchen, but with more of a mom-and-pop, personalized level of customer service, greater efficiency and a greener footprint.”

As trends go, the ghost-kitchen concept is warming up, but it’s not red-hot yet—at least not industry-wide. “One of the big lessons of this pandemic is that restaurant brands need to rethink how much physical space they really need,” says Brittain Brown, president of Givex, a platform for gift cards, loyalty programs and POS solutions. “Pizza is uniquely suited to the delivery-only model, so cloud kitchens make a lot of sense in certain areas. But we have yet to see any chain scale significantly on cloud kitchens alone.”

Still, John Stetson, owner of four Stoner’s Pizza Joints in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Savannah and Warner Robins, Georgia, believes it’s inevitable. “Cloud kitchens will become much more prevalent over the next 10 to 20 years due to appealing economics,” Stetson says. “Cloud kitchens offer a unique opportunity for pizza operations to open a space in a fraction of the time it takes to build [a brick-and-mortar store], minimize overhead costs and improve logistics.”

Piestro, a fully automated pizza making unit, can be paired with Kiwibots for contactless delivery.

Building Better Robots

Some American restaurant-goers think foodservice robots are inevitable, too, although they’re not keen on the idea. Dina Marie Zemke, a professor at Ball State University, and fellow researchers held focus groups with 30 fast-food consumers earlier this year to gauge public opinion on robots in restaurants. In August, she published the results in a paper titled “How to Build a Better Robot for Quick Service Restaurants.” The focus-group participants expressed “a high level of resignation about the inevitability of QSRs incorporating robots” into their operations. “This finding is similar to the acceptability of routine societal change,” Zemke says. “Participants felt that [it’s] a question of when rather than a question of if.”

And the answer to the “when” question seems to be “probably sooner than later.” As we’ve reported in the past, Redmond, Washington-based Zaucer Pizza last year pilot-tested a robot from Picnic that can reportedly assemble 300 pizzas in an hour. Not to be outdone, White Castle announced this July that it would start piloting a new version of Miso Robotics’ burger-flipping Flippy the robot, called Flippy ROAR (Robot-On-a-Rail). Flippy ROAR, which attaches to a rail under the kitchen hood and glides back and forth, can run a burger grill and fry side items, like fries and onion rings. It can even cook up an Impossible Burger, which takes a little extra care on the grill. And it won’t give you any guff, either.

Related: Try out these pizza recipes dreamed up by a computer!

Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “How could I ever afford a robot?” Flippy can be yours for $30,000, which isn’t cheap, but financing options are available. For twice that much, you can soon own a pizza making machine that handles everything but making the dough. Developed by Piestro, located in Santa Monica, California, these units have robotic arms; dispensers for the cheese, sauce and toppings; and spinning disks that move the pie from one stage of the process to the next. The machine even boxes the finished pizza before ejecting it.

Flippy ROAR, the latest foodbot from Miso Robotics, can flip burgers and fry side items like fries and onion rings.

But Piestro takes automation one step further, thanks to a partnership with Kiwibot, a Colombian-owned company specializing in contactless robotic delivery. A Piestro unit can be integrated with a loading mechanism designed for Kiwibots, which then collect the pies and deliver them. Cute if not exactly cuddly, Kiwibots have already been making deliveries in San Jose and Buena Vista, California.

In other words, the Piestro/Kiwibot process is automated from the pizza prep stage to the last mile of delivery. And, interestingly, Piestro’s CEO, Massimo Noja De Marco, serves on Miso Robotics’ board. He’s also a former restaurateur and co-founder of Pasadena, California-based Kitchen United, a pioneer in (wait for it) ghost kitchens. De Marco says it will likely cost about $60,000 to “open” a Piestro location. “[That’s] a steep drop in comparison to the $700,000 to $1 million it costs to open a small traditional pizzeria location,” he says. “While the profit margins of a traditional pizzeria are only 22% in terms of food costs, labor, real estate and other expenses, the profit margin of Piestro is around 48%.”

Related: What does the future of pizza look like?

So how long will it be before automation becomes common in the pizza industry? “Like all technology, adoption speed can vary by several factors,” De Marco says. “But we see the pandemic as having created an urgent need to bypass obstacles in order to enable businesses to reopen and grow…Right now, the real obstacle is building fast enough to meet the new accelerated need for adoption. The faster we build, the more common automation in restaurants and delivery will become—because there’s a new undeniable need to make food more accessible closer to home, with minimal exposure to contaminants.”

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The Matter of Meat-Free “Meats”

As far as food trends, let’s get down to the meat of the matter—or, rather, the matter of meat-free or plant-based proteins. A 2020 survey by OnePoll found that 60% of Americans have started eating a more plant-based diet (flexitarian or semi-vegetarian) since the pandemic began. Moreover, OnePoll reported that 39% of respondents aged 18 to 25 and 23% of those aged 26 to 41 said their diet “already excludes animal products.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re vegans/vegetarians for life. We’ve all known someone who swore off meat for a few weeks, months or even years, only to eventually succumb to the allure of a bacon cheeseburger. Still, independent pizzeria owners need to wake up and smell the tofu. A 2019 Technomic survey found that 50% of consumers eat vegetarian or vegan dishes at least once per month, but most of them said restaurants did a lousy job of providing tasty menu options for them.

Related: Why plant-based proteins are a must-have for pizzerias

Some pizza chains tried to rectify that in 2020. Just in time for the pandemic, Los Angeles-headquartered Fresh Brothers debuted a plant-based pie—topped with pepperoni made from soy protein, spices and rice flour—to celebrate Pi Day on March 14. By July, Wisconsin chain Toppers Pizza had teamed up with vegan chef Melanie Manuel of Celesta Restaurant in Milwaukee on three plant-based pies with artisanal flair: the Buffalo Chicken-Less Topper, the Vegan Korean BBQ Chicken-Less Topper and the Vegan Tuscano Topper. And California Pizza Kitchen jumped on board the meat-free train in October with its BBQ Don’t Call Me Chicken Pizza, featuring Chicketts from Worthington Foods.

Among chains, Pieology has led the way in adopting plant-based proteins as pizza toppings, including meatless sausage, beef and chicken.

Pizza and Vegans, Unite!

With growing numbers of consumers embracing plant-based diets and shunning products of animal origin, the demand for vegan options is greater than ever—especially within America’s favorite food category, pizza! To help operators meet this demand, on November 1, PMQ launched its new website, PizzaVegan.com, to establish the first-ever community designed to connect vegan-friendly pizzerias (and the vegan-curious) with consumers.

In this new online space, we’ll highlight:

Pizzerias and innovative menu items that cater to vegans and vegetarians

Vegan experts, influencers and bloggers who share their insider knowledge

Informative articles about making and marketing
vegan/vegetarian pizza

Products and recipes that help take the guesswork out of vegan-friendly foods

Join our community by registering your pizzeria today at PizzaVegan.com.

Major meat-substitute brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have also infiltrated fast-food brands. There’s an Impossible Whopper at Burger King, while Carl’s Jr. offers a Beyond Sausage Burrito and Beyond Sausage and Egg, plus its Beyond Famous Star and Beyond BBQ Cheeseburger. Customers can even dig into plant-based tacos at chains like Chronic Taco and Del Taco.

The future looks bright for these manufacturers of plant-based proteins. Dublin, Ireland-based Research and Markets projects the global market will grow from $10.3 billion in 2020 to $14.5 billion by 2025. Looking further ahead, the Swiss investment firm UBS predicts the market will expand to a whopping $85 billion by 2030.

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So just how meat-like do plant-based proteins need to taste? According to research firm Mintel, more than half of American consumers want meat alternatives to “closely mimic the taste of meat.” Fifty-two percent of diners who eat plant-based proteins choose them because of their taste, outranking concerns about health (39%), the environment (13%) and animal protection (11%).

“Flexitarians and curious consumers represent a sizable opportunity, as they are open to trying more plant-based options on menus,” Mintel noted in a blog post titled “Foodservice: 5 Ways to Stay On Top of the Plant-Based Trend.” Mintel recommends appealing to diners with “familiar and proprietary menu items [they] can’t find anywhere else. While diners are attracted to plant-based items for their perceived health benefits, they also like to indulge while dining out. Balance healthy and indulgent items, as well as manufactured and plant-forward dishes, to appeal to a spectrum of dining occasions.”

Staying Strong in 2021

Offer value, but watch your bottom line. Many of your customers will still be hurting for money. Fortunately, as Niko Frangas, president of Rascal House in Cleveland, Ohio, points out, pizza is already a great value in hard times. So don’t panic and start slashing your prices if things get worse again. “If you feel like you need to create value, pushing loyalty and rewards is a must and a great place to start,” Frangas says. “Find a way to reward frequency, whether it’s with punch cards, point systems or a full-on loyalty app. Get creative without discounting or cheapening what you do. There are better ways to draw customers in and increase sales without lowering your profit.”

Stay touch-free. Customers will still want contactless delivery in 2021, and demand for touch-free at-the-table ordering will be higher than ever, says Mary Jane Riva, CEO of Pizza Factory, a chain based in Oakhurst, California. “Touch-free is very important and will be around permanently,” she says. “We have table ordering via cell phone, so there is no interaction with the employee working the register.”

Use social media chatbots for digital ordering. Chatbots are automated programs that engage customers looking to place an order from a social media platform. They can answer questions, resolve complaints and even set up reservations. For his Stoner’s Pizza Joint stores, John Stetson has been using chatbots to speed up the digital ordering process and assist customers on social media. “We believe this will become the future of online ordering,” he says. 

Simplify your menu. Many restaurant chains have slimmed down and optimized their menus for delivery and takeout. Take a good, hard look at your menu items, weed out the weaklings and keep your customers’ favorites. Scrutinize your food cost on each item and determine its profitability. Call attention to the high-profit items on your menu with photos or callouts. “Another tip is to make sure you have a good grip on your loss leaders versus valued add-ons,” says Ryan Goldhammer, co-owner of Noble Pie Parlor in Reno, Nevada. “Use this understanding of your business to put together combinations of products and packages that increase your price-per-guest and overall margins.”

Take it outdoors. If your city and climate allow it, outdoor dining could give your sales a shot in the arm. If it’s just too cold out, start planning now for al fresco dining in the springtime. “The No. 1 recommendation we give to clients is to add outdoor seating,” says Joshua Zinder, a managing partner at JZA+D, a Princeton, New Jersey-based restaurant design firm. “Most localities will allow pizza restaurants to expand outdoor seating into the curb lane, if requested, or add seating to sidewalks or parking areas. Now is [also] the time to add or improve your drive-through pickup areas [and] improve online ordering.”

In this photo taken before the pandemic, a group of customers enjoy a pizza party at MOD Pizza, the fastest growing pizza chain in the U.S.

Weathering the Storm

As tough as times have been for the restaurant industry in 2020, pizza has been a shining beacon in the darkness. But let’s face it: No one knows what’s coming next year. As this report was being prepared, COVID-19 cases were ticking upward quickly around most of the United States. As of early November, Oregon, Michigan and San Francisco had once again put a pause on indoor dining, while Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker banned dine-in service in many parts of the state, including Chicago. Many states and cities continued to limit indoor capacity and operational hours.

That means off-premise business will remain key to any restaurant’s survival, and if you’re a PMQ reader, you’ve already got that covered. You’re positioned better than your non-pizza competitors to weather the storm. Stay in touch with your customers, offer them value for their money, stick with your marketing, and give back to your community, just like you’ve been doing ever since this whole mess began (and probably long before then).

Matt Vannini, president and CEO of consulting firm Restaurant Solutions in Denver, put things into perspective nicely in a September article he penned for PMQ’s website. “The only experience similar to the pandemic that any restaurateurs have ever had is when they were opening for the first time,” he wrote. “That was the last time where the operator had no sales and cost history, no brand awareness and no consumer base. Restaurant operators need to believe that their past experiences and obstacles within the industry have prepared them to overcome whatever the pandemic can throw at them.”

In other words: You’ve got this.  

Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.