Today, Papa John’s is the third biggest pizza chain in the US, with more than 5,000 locations. But, 27 years ago, it was just a kitchen in a broom closet.
In his new book, “PAPA: The Story of Papa John’s Pizza,” which will be released on January 30, Papa John’s Founder and CEO John Schnatter recounts the ups and downs of Papa John’s history.
The excerpt below describes just one of the challenges Papa John’s faced when there were just four restaurants in 1986.
We were doing serious volume at this point — roughly 4,000 pizzas a week across all four Papa John’s. Unfortunately, some of our machines were absolutely ancient. The World War I-era T-80 mixer is the best example. It was so old that it would break every few months. The main culprit was the drive shaft, a deceptively complicated piece of equipment that repeatedly snapped. When this happened, it was a total disaster that could slow us down for hours at a time — an emergency for a pizzeria that promised your pizza would be ready in 20 minutes or less.
The only thing that kept us going in these situations was my uncle Bill, a machinist at the Naval Ordnance Station in Louisville, who was talented enough to make drive shafts himself. He would make them at his own day job, hide them in his pants and then bring them to me.
Our constant struggles remind me of a Winston Churchill quote: “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.”
We couldn’t keep this up, especially since our volume was constantly growing, putting even more stress on this ancient machine. I needed a new mixer and fast. So I called up Chris Karamesines, the Greek who ran Greek’s, where I made pizzas in college. I’ve always viewed Chris as one of my mentors — he taught me as much about making pizzas as anybody. He was also quite a character. He had a voice you could never forget.
When I told him my predicament, he yelled at me through the phone: “JOHN! JOHN! I thought I taught you better than that! John, John, don’t use a T-80! You need an M-80!”
I didn’t know what that was. He kept going: “You got a World War I machine, John! John, you got the wrong machine! The M-80 is a much bigger and stronger model. You don’t even have to take it out of first gear. I can’t believe you’re that stupid!”
After messing with me a little more, he gave me the number of a farmer in Greenville, Indiana who had the M-80 mixer that I needed so badly just sitting in his barn. Apparently it was from a Greek’s franchise that had shut down in the past year. Chris’ parting wisdom was that I shouldn’t pay more than $250 for the machine.
I wanted to solve this problem quickly, so I got in my pickup truck and drove up to get the M-80 mixer. My girlfriend (and future wife) Annette joined me. Sure enough, the heavy-duty piece of machinery was sitting in the back of the farmer’s barn.
After some haggling, the farmer agreed to sell the mixer to me for $220. After I handed over the cash, he thanked me and started walking away. I ran after him, saying, “Hey, how am I supposed to get this thing in the back of my pickup truck?”
He responded: “That’s your problem, pal.”
I was angry, mostly at myself. But there was nothing I could do about it. So I asked him, “Well, how’d you get the mixer in the barn in the first place?”
He told me he used a tow truck, which had a small crane on the back. I didn’t have any choice, so I called the nearest tow truck to come hoist the mixer into the back of my pickup. That cost me another $40, pushing me over budget on this one project. I was pretty pissed off.
Once the mixer was in my truck, I faced another big problem: getting it back to the commissary in Clarksville. The mixer itself was a top-heavy monstrosity that weighed 1,200 pounds. My truck, an ’84 Toyota, weighed 2,800 pounds. e mixer looked so top-heavy sitting in the truck bed, I was afraid the truck would roll over on the hour-and-a-half drive back to Clarksville. Even worse, it was starting to snow.
Here we were, driving down I-65, slipping and sliding all over the snow-covered roads while carrying a massive piece of machinery in the bed of my pickup truck. At one point, Annette asked me, “Is this safe?” I wanted to impress her, so I didn’t even hesitate to say, “Oh yeah, we’re fine.”
I was hoping she couldn’t tell I was terrified on the inside.
Fortunately, we got back to Clarksville without any problems. But then we had to get the mixer into the building. We set up a winch attached to the Papa John’s sign and used it to hoist the mixer out of my truck. After that, we set up some dowel rods in the parking lot and rolled the mixer onto the footpath, which was flush with the parking lot. Then we rolled the machine into the actual building.
Anyone who saw this from the street probably thought we were stealing something or were part of a slapstick comedy routine. But that’s what things were like at that point. We didn’t have any spare cash to spend on projects like this.
Our focus wasn’t on frills — it was on delivering a better pizza to as many people as we could. When it came to projects like this, we just had to put our backs into it and stay devoted to the original Papa John’s vision. It would have been easy to cut corners here and there, but I wasn’t willing to let that happen. You can’t make a traditional, superior-quality Papa John’s pizza by cutting corners.
By late 1986, the Clarksville commissary was up and running. It immediately benefitted the business. Just like we expected, it helped us improve our productivity, which helped us double down on quality. As Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, once said, “Your quality is only as good as your consistency.”
We learned through trial and error that your customers stop trusting you when you give them something different every time. They wanted a quality Papa John’s pizza, nothing else. Now that every pizza at every store was being made with ingredients produced in a central location, we could ensure consistency across the board. There’s no excuse for a Papa John’s pizza to be of lower quality than the best Papa John’s pizza. That was true in 1986, and it’s still true today.
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