Life & Style | People

Papa John's owner has come a long way

He started out as a dishwasher at 15, but now John Schnatter owns Papa John’s, the third-largest franchise in the world, and says making the perfect pizza is still an obsession.

  • By Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary
  • Published: 00:04 June 21, 2013
  • Friday

John Schnatter
  • Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM
  • With humble beginnings that started in a broom closet, Papa John’s now has 4,000 outlets.
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John Schnatter has come a long way since his part-time job as a dishwasher when he was 15. “One day, one of the pizza makers took a day off and I got a chance to help make pizzas. I loved handling the dough and the toppings and did such a good job that they promoted me from dishwasher to pizza maker,” he says. From there he became obsessed with making the perfect pizza, experimenting with the dough and sauces.

Even while studying business at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, he worked at a Greek pizza restaurant to learn as much as he could. Before graduating, he’d already come up with the name and logo of what was to become his own pizza company, Papa John’s.

“An acquaintance – whose name I can’t remember – lived across the corridor in my dorm, and he designed the logo for me. Today I have sold thousands of pizzas and I wish he had come forward to stake his claim,’’ he says.

In 1982, straight out of college, 21-year-old John started a pizza delivery business out of the broom closet in his father Robert’s tavern in Indiana. The tavern was on the brink of shutting down due to heavy debts, so John decided to take a $40,000 (Dh146,924) loan from the bank to help pay off the debts and put some money into his business. He also decided to sell his car – his 1971 Z28 Camaro – for $2,800. He bought out his father’s partner in the tavern business and two years later John opened a full-fledged pizza parlour.

Unfortunately, around this time, John’s father suffered an aneurysm and died. Still finding his feet in the fledgling business, John says he was forced to return to work the day after his father’s funeral as he had nobody to take care of the business. But his perseverance and hard work paid off and soon John’s pizzas became the talk of the town. In 1989, he opened a second pizza parlour in Louisville, Kentucky, which was voted best pizza in town. Papa John’s had arrived and since then John, who was always working hard on new recipes and tweaking his brand to suit the tastes of his consumers, has never looked back. Today he has 4,000 outlets around the world, and 100 of them are in the Middle East.

Recently in Dubai to celebrate the opening of the 100th store in the region, John was unwilling to spend time in a business suit making small talk. Instead, he did what he loves doing best – he tucked up his sleeves, slipped into the kitchen and started rolling out high-quality pizza bases. “I would have never imagined 28 years ago that one day people living in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, Ajman and Al Ain would become our loyal customers,” he says. “Initially, I thought I might have to tweak the flavours a bit for the region, but I’ve found that people love it just the way it is made internationally.”

Taking some time out from the kitchen, John spoke to Friday in an exclusive interview:

Work

I knew I wanted to make a living out of making pizzas the first time I tried it out at Rocky’s Sub Pub when I was 15. I also realised that I had to get the dough, the toppings, the temperature, and the sauces absolutely right to keep customers loyal. If you didn’t do it right, the pizza would come back half eaten. The finer nuances of making pizza I learnt working at the Greek pizzeria while at university.

When I returned home I could see that my dad’s tavern business was doing badly, but the first day I stood behind the counter dealing with customers I fell in love with the idea of doing business. So I got into the kitchen and fixed the food, hired a bartender, improved the music and sure enough, business picked up. But it was still not enough to clear the $60,000 debts. We were on the verge of bankruptcy.

It was at this time that I decided to start selling pizzas from the broom closet in the tavern. I installed an oven and hired Denise Robinson, my first employee, to take orders.

Her husband Glen, who died last year, was our first delivery man. Denise would take orders, and rouse me from my sleep – I would be napping on the floor of the broom closet because I was working non-stop. I would then bake the pizzas and Glen would rush to deliver them. During the first year I was virtually living in the broom closet.

As the pizza business picked up, I sold my favourite car to raise money to buy out my dad’s partner, took a loan of $40,000, paid off the debtors and put all the stakes in to my pizza business.

I’ve always believed in good quality. From the beginning, I knew that if we take care of our people, take care of our product, run a good, clean business and make it a win-win situation for everyone, we could build a successful business.

Today Papa John’s is a big brand, but I associate it with honesty. Everyone from the kitchen to the delivery boy believes in the product.

I believe that when you are building a brand you cannot use cheap, inferior ingredients. That might work for a short-term goal, but you can never get away with it in the long term. If everyone spends two bucks making a pizza,
I spend five.

We never use frozen dough. Our dough is always fresh, mixed with clear filtered bottled water. Our sauces are never made from concentrates, but from vine-ripened tomatoes. Our cheese is 100 per cent mozzarella and we use no artificial flavouring. We work on all aspects of quality control that will help us stay ahead of the competition.

We experiment with different ingredients and flavours, and what we cook in the test kitchen goes to the laboratory for a complete analysis for the break down of its nutritional value and moisture. Our taste buds are subjective, but the laboratory report is objective, and we look at that before we make anything part of our regular recipes.

Even though we are the third-largest franchise business in the world, every day approximately 100 pizzas are randomly tested from around the world in our quality-control kitchen for a ten-point quality checklist.

The ten points typically include things like the thickness of the crust, the softness of the dough, the distribution of the toppings out to the edge to make sure the ingredients are in every bite, the toppings themselves, the ‘cheese lock’ at the edge of the crust... It’s like having a boat in which you can either go upstream or downstream. If you are honest and doing everything right, people will join you and you can paddle downstream effortlessly. But if you are not doing things right, you will go upstream and alone.

The consistency in my work also extends to my interaction with my employees. I’ve been in this business from the time I was 15 and I do everything that I expect my team members to do. I try to look at the business from their eyes. I never tolerate anything that is disrespectful.

At the end of the day why I still go to work is because I love doing it. When people come and tell me they love my pizza, I feel it is worth all the trouble. I want my team to aspire to do the right thing always and never to take short cuts.

Play

I spent my childhood in Jeffersonville, Indiana and we had a large red-brick house by the Ohio River where my brother Chuck, my sister Annette and I grew up. I think my sense of entrepreneurship comes from my great-great grandmother Martha who owned a curio shop in the early 20th century. Both my parents – my father Robert and mother Beth – taught me that there was no shortcut in life. One had to strive for perfection. I recall when I was barely nine or ten and brought my report card home, I had five As but there was one B. My mother turned around and told me, ‘In our family you don’t make B’s. The next time I don’t want to see that in your progress report. You have to do your best.’ After that I never got a B in any subject. I also realised that if you do your best, things do work out.

My maternal grandfather Louis Ackerson, who was a successful businessman, taught me that if I took a chance in life, I had to work really hard to make sure it worked. My father was into politics and very often he and my mother would travel. So we kids spent half our time at my grandparents home in Louisville, Kentucky, which was a 25-minute drive from Jeffersonville.

My grandfather was a man who took no chances – he was very hard-working and very systematic. He would make us kids work shovelling snow, raking autumn leaves, cleaning the garden and doing odd jobs at home. So working hard got wired into my DNA from a young age.

I was able to put all my lessons on perfection, hard work and taking the odd chance into practice when I set up my own business and everything fell into place.

The same principle of consistency that I use in my business I apply to my life too. I married my teenage sweetheart Annette in 1987 and we remain happily married.

For the last 22 years I have been working out at the gym and have not missed a single day. To me, success means having happy, honest kids and a happy home.

I value people very highly. I have always wanted to make the lives of each and every member of my team better. I value respect and kindness and believe that people will always want to give their best when they genuinely believe in you and what you are doing. At work, Denise, who was my first employee, still works with me.

When I’m not making pizzas, I love riding bicycles and try and do 125 miles (201km) a week, go golfing, and lift weights.

Dream

I dream of always having a strong, healthy and happy family around me. I have two daughters – Danielle, 26, who is married and has no intention of joining the business and Kristina, 24, who is doing law. I have a son Beau, who is 14 and still at school, but maybe someday he might want to get into this business. But I do not believe in pushing my kids into this.

Watching the growth of Papa John’s employees is the best part of this job and grooming the next generation of leaders is an important part of my work. I’m giving my employees a test run in case I get hit by a bus!

What I have created will last, and I want to work towards making my brand reach the absolute top. I believe in hard work and consistency and do not mind chipping away, one brick at a time.

I have been doing this since I was 15 and will continue doing this because I believe so much in my passion and my dream.

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