How Papa John's Pizza Is Really Made

Papa John's was founded in 1984 by John Schnatter, and according to The Drum, may have made his first pizzas in a broom closet at the back of his dad's tavern in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

With thousands of stores all over the world, Papa John's has come a long way since making pizzas in a broom closet. It's gone through quite a few changes, the most dramatic of which was its change of management, with Schnatter — Papa John himself — being ousted from his CEO role.

Fast-forward to the end of 2019, and Schnatter claimed the pizza under the new management wasn't as good as it used to be. He told a Kentucky news station, "The way they're making the pizza is just not fundamental to what makes a Papa John's pizza." 

Which, of course, begs the question: What, exactly, makes a Papa John's pizza? This is how Papa John's pizza is really made.

The Papa John's pizza recipe hasn't changed

When Papa John's founder and ex-CEO John Schnatter made headlines by claiming that the pizza from the chain he created wasn't as good as it used to be, new CEO Rob Lynch responded.

"We haven't made any changes to the way we make it or what goes into our products," new Lynch told CNBC's Squawk on the Street (via Thrillist). "Mr. Schnatter is entitled to his opinion. We're focused on doing the things that are going to move the business forward." 

What has changed, however, are some items on the menu, according to CNBCincluding it's first new pizza crust flavor in 35 years.

Schnatter later explained that he did not, in fact, eat 40 pizzas in the space of 30 days. MarketWatch reports that the ousted CEO went on the H3 podcast and clarified his claims, saying, "When I said I had a pizza, this means I'm inspecting," continued Schnatter. "I'm not eating every pizza, I may be eating parts of pizzas."

How Papa John's makes the original dough pizza crust

To make a good pizza, you need to start with a good base. If you wonder what goes into the perfect Papa John's base, look no further than the Papa John's website, where the ingredients for the fresh dough are listed. If you're ordering a traditional hand-tossed pizza, it's made of pretty basic ingredients: unbleached enriched wheat flour, water, sugar, soybean oil, salt, and yeast. But what do they do with those ingredients to turn them into the Papa John's crust we know and love?

One alleged Papa John's employee shares a lot of info about how Papa John's creates their pizza base, saying they let the dough proof until it's "about three inches thick."

Other tips they gave include rolling the pizza with a dough docker (spiked roller), "slapping the pizza" to get it to the desired shape, and using their fingers to press into the border to create the crust. According to the employee, they create a crust that's about 1/4-inch thick. 

There's also a gluten-free pizza crust but they're not making that one at their local pizza shops. According to a press release from Papa John's (via Extra Crispy), that crust is "prepared in a separate, gluten-free facility before being shipped to stores." Still, they warn that it could be exposed to glutens in the pizza shops, so those with gluten sensitivities should still be careful. 

Papa Johns uses a lot of sauce

A good crust on its own won't give you pizza, it will give you bread — which is super yummy but not what Papa John's is about. Another important ingredient for a good pie is, of course, tomato sauce.

So what's in Papa John's signature tomato sauce? On the company website, we find the ingredients we expect: fresh vine-ripened tomatoes (from a can), salt, garlic, spices, oils, and sugar. And it might be a lot of sugar. According to a former manager who did an AMA on Reddit, the sauce "is full of sugar."

Another alleged Papa John's employee gives the low down on how much sauce is required, saying they "spread the tomato sauce to one inch from the border of the pizza." 

Even if you love the sweet sauce they serve at Papa John's, it might have been sitting on the pizza for longer than you think. A Redditor claiming to be a Papa John's employee explained that on predicted busy days, the pizzas are partly pre-made. "They get sauced and topped but not cheesed."

Papa John's probably uses the same cheese as other chains

Good dough and sauce is half a pizza. Cheese comes next. However, this is where Papa John's doesn't differ much from its competitors.

Parmesan/Romano or Three Cheese Blend are your two choices. The Three Cheese Blend is made up of Provolone, Fontina, and Asiago cheeses, as stated on the company's website and while that's nice to know, it's not a lot of information.

According to Forbes, Papa John's cheeses are provided by Leprino Foods — the same company who also supplies Domino's, Little Caesars, and Pizza Hut with all their cheesy needs. This means all of these chains serve cheese of a similar source and quality, but it doesn't mean it's exactly the same. Each chain uses a special blend of cheeses unique only to them. 

With a monopoly on the market and a focus on quality — one of the only dairy-giants never having had to recall a product — the cheeses from Leprino complement Papa John's pizzas perfectly.

Papa John's Pan Pizza is made its very own way

In 2016, Papa John's launched a new pizza: the Pan Pizza. Papa John's chief ingredient officer Sean Muldoon told Business Insider that it took a year and a half to perfect the pan pizza, which is made using a different process than their other pizzas.

The dough, which contains only seven ingredients, is rolled out with a spiky docker — begone bubbles! — and then put in a pan instead of being hand-tossed.

After that, sauce and toppings are added, then cheese is added and spread all the way to the crust for that perfect: "cheese ring."

Pan pizza is not made in the same oven as the hand-tossed and thin crust, as it doesn't take the same time to bake. This meant restaurants had to add special equipment to their kitchen, or even have two ovens.

Business Insider calls the outer edge of the pan pizza "less crust and more of a caramelized crisp," and that sounds as heavenly as it tastes.

Some ingredients sit around for a long time at Papa John's

Papa John's may be known for their "Better ingredients. Better pizza" slogan, but some of those "better ingredients" might not be so great after all, according to employees.

According to a former manager who did an AMA on Reddit, "Papa John's has a spinach Alfredo sauce that's delicious but only gets ordered maybe once a week, and it hits its sell-by date 3 days after you open the bag but no one actually throws it out until it's either gone or nasty looking."

Apparently, the toppings aren't exactly fresh, either. Also on Reddit, an alleged employee dished out some more behind-the-scenes details, saying, "so few people order anchovies that the leftover is sometimes forgotten and will still end up on a pizza." 

That employee also described a meat lovers pizza that occasionally appears on menus that get's a "sprinkle of 'meat flavor' at the cut table," and chicken topping that comes to the stores in a bag and "has a chemical odor."

Maybe just order a cheese pizza next time?

Papa Johns always adds some extras to your pizza box

The last step before your pizza heads to you is to load it into the box, along with all the extras that make Papa John's so special. Garlic sauce is what you might be used to, but it's actually not the only signature sauce available at the chain.

Dipping sauces, as listed on the company's website, include BBQ, blue cheese, Buffalo, cheese, honey mustard, pizza sauce and ranch. You can also add extra pepperoncini or get packets of crushed red pepper, special seasoning, or Parmesan cheese.

If you needed proof that dipping sauces are what make Papa John's extra special, the garlic sauce — which is by far the most popular — had a limited edition 1-gallon jug release in 2018, according to Thrillist. Yes, it's that good that fans bought it by the gallon.