The Secret Ingredient Powering Papa John’s

You might think it’s a better pizza, but the global pizza chain’s true recipe for success begins with a commitment to people

Papa John’s Pizza’s commitment to better pizza begins with better people. As the company expands across the globe, Bob Smith leads an HR team committed to employees, which in turn guarantees the pizza chain’s quality standards never waver.
Papa John’s Pizza’s commitment to better pizza begins with better people. As the company expands across the globe, Bob Smith leads an HR team committed to employees, which in turn guarantees the pizza chain’s quality standards never waver.

If you’re working as a pizza delivery person, chances are there aren’t a lot of opportunities for career growth within your current role. Well, that’s if you’re not working for Papa John’s Pizza. If you’re delivering pizza for Papa John’s—the third-largest pizza delivery restaurant chain in the US—there’s literally no telling where you’ll end up. Just ask the members of the company’s upper and senior management team who began as delivery drivers. According to Bob Smith, the company’s vice president of global human resources, this is one of the many things that makes the company’s culture special.

This is a message reinforced by the company’s founder and CEO, John Schnatter. “Papa John’s is not in the pizza business; Papa John’s is in the people business,” he says. Either way you look at it, the company is a successful business: at just 30 years old, business is booming, with 4,296 stores in 35 countries. And at each location, quality is the focus.

“Quality is embedded in every aspect of our culture, at every step of the way,” Smith says. “We hear from team members and vendors all the time that, despite being a large company, we feel like a small chain. It’s because we’re so hands-on. Even our leadership team is small, with just 12 people, but that means we can get things done quickly.”

When speaking to Smith about what makes Papa John’s different from other pizza chains, there’s a lot of talk of “going left,” which Smith describes as doing the unexpected. The colloquialism, one that’s used often within the walls of the company’s Louisville, Kentucky-based headquarters, comes from Schnatter himself. “The story is that John took over his Dad’s bar, Mick’s Lounge, to get it out of bankruptcy,” Smith says. “The day after his Dad’s funeral, he went back to Mick’s and faced a tough decision: do I go right and sit at the bar or do I go left toward the unfinished restaurant. He went left and built the restaurant that became Papa John’s and changed his life forever.”


“Quality is embedded in every aspect of our culture, at every step of the way.” —Bob Smith

The company’s core values—focus, accountability, superiority, “PAPA” (people are priority always), attitude, and constant improvement—also reflect Schnatter, and it’s these values that attract the company’s dedicated, ambitious employees. When Smith was promoted in 2012, he was told personally by Schnatter that it was his job to “champion the Papa John’s culture,” and Smith says that requires empowering employees, helping them understand how the business side of the company functions, and ensuring they feel ownership of their roles and the contribution they’re making to the company.

The approach is working, both at home and abroad. Papa John’s has successfully grown earnings by almost 20 percent from 2011 to 2012 and has positive growth globally, despite the recession and competitive global markets. The company has been global for 15 years, and Smith says the rapid growth outside the United States is one of the most exciting parts of his job.

Moving in such a direction is challenging. The company’s slogan—“Better Ingredients. Better Pizza”—implies a higher standard for the company and its product, meaning the resources piece of the puzzle when working in international markets can be challenging. But Smith and his team aren’t deterred. “I’m the first person on the team that will say, ‘Do we have the resources for that?’” he says. “And it’s not just about money; it’s about people. Companies often consider doing more with less a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to success for us because we’re trying to maintain quality across the board, from our product to our customer service. If we expand into a new country, we must offer the support that’s needed to remain the best at what we do.”