The Untold Truth Of Papa John's

Whether you consider yourself a fan or not, when you hear "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza," you know the reference. With more than 5,000 locations in 45 countries around the world, Papa John's is a household name, albeit a contentious one. Between the fierce and never-ending competition among its global pizza chain competitors (looking at you Pizza Hut and Domino's), and the headline-making drama that has plagued the company from the inside out in recent years, the story of Papa John's is anything but a boring one.

The general consensus seems to hold Papa John's comfortably in third place among the most popular pizza chains out there, with Pizza Hut and Domino's battling it out for the top spot. But while Domino's continues to lead the pack among global pizza chains, with more than $4 million in revenue in 2020, there may be a chance for Papa John's to finally pull ahead of Pizza Hut. Papa John's brought in nearly $2 billion in revenue in 2020 as it works to make up for years of falling sales in the wake of its founder's scandal-ridden exit from the company. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut keeps falling behind, bringing in roughly half the revenue of Papa John's last year.

So what exactly is the deal with this pizza chain and its roller coaster back story? From new kid on the block to major rival, company under fire to comeback kid, this is the untold truth of Papa John's.

Papa John's has a humble origin story, much like its rivals

Much like it's biggest rivals, Pizza Hut and Domino's, Papa John's has a humble origin story. It started with one young college grad with few resources, a lot of ambition, and the advantage of learning from his predecessors. The dream began when John Schnatter was 15 and washing dishes in the local pizza shop. By that point, Pizza Hut and Domino's had already grown into major national brands, so Schnatter got to see both sides of the pizza business — the local shops, making a high-quality product, and the franchised chains, which revolutionized the concept of fast, convenient pizza delivery. Schnatter decided he wanted to combine the best of both worlds – but he had to start small(via Entrepreneur).

When Schnatter returned home after graduating college in 1983, he sold his 1972 Camaro for cash, bought some used restaurant equipment, and got to work making and selling pizzas out of a reconfigured broom closet in the back of his father's tavern in Jeffersonville, Indiana (via Investor's Business Daily). He realized he hated the bar atmosphere, but loved being in business (via Bloomberg). The next year, the first official Papa John's location opened right next door. Within seven years, 100 more franchises opened, and the company just kept growing from there into one of the top global pizza brands in the world.

Papa John's basically invented pizza dipping sauce

Pizza Hut gets the credit for first introducing a chain pizzeria to the American masses (via Domino's quickly followed, and is recognized for making pizza delivery as fast and convenient as it is today (via Pizza Hall of Fame) — not to mention, practically inventing pizza boxes as we know them today. But once you do get that hot, fresh pizza in front of you, if you immediately reach for the pizza dipping sauce... well, you can thank Papa John's for that. 

According to Eater, Papa John's "gets credit for first creating and marketing a dip specifically for pizza." These days, pizza dipping sauce knows no bounds — everything counts, from ranch to Buffalo sauce to honey mustard, even mango habanero. But it all started with Papa John's famous signature garlic dipping sauce. Founder John Schnatter created the sauce back in 1984 when he first opened Papa John's, and it's been included in every box of pizza the company has sold since (per Eater). Other chains followed suit, and today pizza dipping is so popular, there are national debates about it.

Papa John's was the first pizza chain to offer nationwide online ordering

Unless you're a Gen Z'er, you probably remember the days of picking up the phone and calling your local Pizza Hut, Domino's, or Papa John's to place a pizza delivery order. Of course, in today's world that's unheard of when you can simply hop online and order all the pizza your heart desires.

As second nature as it feels nowadays, online pizza ordering is only just over two decades old. And like dipping sauce, it's another pizza luxury that we can thank Papa John's for popularizing. While the very first online pizza order was placed at a Pizza Hut in 1994, Papa John's is recognized as the first pizza chain to offer nationwide online pizza ordering at all of its stores. Papa John's rolled out its online ordering system across the board starting in 2002 and it didn't take long for the competition to fall in line. Pizza Hut expanded online ordering to all stores in 2003, and Domino's followed in 2007.

Papa John's might have a spamming problem

All feelings about crust and sauce aside, there are a lot of people who have had it with Papa John's. Why, you ask? Well, it's sort of like that ex that won't stop blowing up your phone. It's flattering at first, then annoying, then just blatantly inappropriate. The same goes for Papa John's, which has faced not one, but two lawsuits accusing the company of harassing customers with too many text messages.

In 2012, Papa John's was hit with a class-action lawsuit for allegedly sending 500,000 texts to customers — without their permission — offering pizza deals. Some people claimed they were getting more than a dozen texts in a row, sometimes during the middle of the night (via CNN). Papa John's ended up forking over $16.5 million dollars to settle the suit

Then in 2017, Papa John's faced another lawsuit from a man claiming to be bombarded with texts from the chain, despite the fact that he'd never even ordered a pizza from them. In another instance, a couple was harassed with endless phone calls from customers trying to order Papa John's pizza. Apparently, their phone number used to belong to a since-closed Papa John's location and kept coming up in Google searches (per NBC's WFLA). They also claimed they contacted Papa John's corporate office to fix the listing and got no help. Let's hope they at least got a free pizza out of it.

Papa John's poached talent from one of its biggest rivals, and things got ugly

There are few food rivalries as fierce as the never-ending pizza wars between the global chains. It's been going on for decades, and one of its bloodier battles broke out between Pizza Hut and Papa John's in the 1990s.

It started after Pizza Hut co-founder Frank Carney decided to switch teams and become a Papa John's franchisee in 1994. He'd left Pizza Hut in 1980, but was looking to get back into the business. Some say he tried to return to Pizza Hut but was unhappy with the position they offered him (via The New York Times). Others say he was upset with Pizza Hut's corporate decisions (via Newser). Either way, Carney decided to go to work for his longtime rival, eventually becoming one of Papa John's largest franchisees. Papa John's decided to really rub it in and had Carney appear in national commercials in 1997, claiming he had found "better pizza" (via Mental Floss). 

This was also around the time that Papa John's rolled out their now-famous slogan "Better Ingredients. Better Pizza." Pizza Hut wasn't having it, and what followed is an advertising showdown of epic proportions that led both companies to sue each other for false advertising. Pizza Hut tried and eventually failed to force Papa John's to drop the slogan for good (via The Balance) in what some have called "the stupidest case to ever be heard by the judiciary" (via CBS).

Papa John's reportedly used to be a horrible place to work under founder John Schnatter

As Papa John's grew into a global pizza chain on par with the likes of Domino's and Pizza Hut, so did the larger-than-life persona of its founder, Papa John himself, John Schnatter. And apparently, that wasn't always a good thing. Schnatter was always known for being a very focused, determined go-getter. But by the mid-90s, Schnatter had also developed a reputation for being a very tough boss with exceptionally high standards and a management style that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Schnatter apparently even used to make surprise quality checks at his restaurants, terrifying unexpecting employees (via People). 

Then in 2018, a bombshell hit. Forbes spoke with dozens of current and former Papa John's employees — including restaurant workers, executives, and board members — who detailed a toxic work culture under Schnatter, one that encouraged profanity and crude sexism. According to the report, the alleged behavior from Schnatter included everything from "sexually inappropriate conduct" to recruiting employees to spy on their coworkers. The pizza titan was also reportedly in the habit of reading workers' emails in his constant effort to protect himself and his reputation. When Schnatter was eventually forced to leave the company, Papa John's shareholders even tried to sue the company and its founder for trying to hide this toxic workplace culture, though the suit was later dismissed in court.

Papa John's has faced some uncomfortable accusations of racism

Papa John's has found itself in the spotlight in recent years, and it has nothing to do with its pizza. Instead, it has to do with numerous comments and actions by the company and its founder John Schnatter that have been characterized as offensive and even racist.

For example, in 2012 the company apologized after an employee at a New York location referred to an Asian customer using a racist slur (via Eater). The following year, another incident made headlines after a Papa John's delivery man left a racist rant on a customer's voicemail, apparently by accident (via ABC News). Papa John's had to issue yet another apology in 2016 when an employee at a location in Denver used a racial slur in place of a customer's name, which was then printed on their computer-generated receipt, reports the Denver Post.

Incidents of racism have run all the way to the top at Papa John's. In 2018, the NFL ended their national sponsorship deal with the pizza chain after founder John Schnatter made comments suggesting that Papa John's pizza sales were suffering as a result of players kneeling in protest during the national anthem (via The New York Times). Around that time, some white supremacists groups even suggested making Papa John's the official pizza of the alt-right (via Huff Post).

Papa John's had to say goodbye to Papa John himself after a series of scandals

The racist attitudes and comments made by Papa John's founder John Schnatter eventually culminated in his complete removal from the company he created. Shortly after his comments about NFL protests came to light, the company announced he was stepping down as Papa John's CEO, though no official reason was given (per USA Today). Then just six months later, Schnatter was heard using a racist slur on a conference call. Amid the outrage, tanking sales, and in the wake of several organizations cutting ties with the company in response, Schnatter was forced to resign as chairman of the board (via CNBC). Papa John's moved swiftly to distance itself from Schnatter, and remove him as the face of the brand (via Eater).

Papa John did not bow out gracefully, though. Shortly after he resigned, he sued the company over his removal, even going so far as to suggest the board had planned a coup against him (via CNN). After a yearlong legal fight, Papa John's and Schnatter reached a settlement, and he stepped down from the board entirely. Since then, Schnatter has continued to make disparaging public comments about Papa John's, and has sold off a large chunk of his 29% share of the company (per Restaurant Business).

Founder John Schnatter doesn't think too highly of Papa John's anymore

Now that John Schnatter no longer runs Papa John's, he's determined to prove the company is worse off without him. "They're losing traffic, they're losing customers," Schnatter said in an interview with the Right Side Broadcasting Network (via Fox News). "I think the traffic count's less than what it was when I was there six years ago. Over 40% of the stores are losing money." It should be noted that as of 2022, Papa John's sales have actually been on an upward trend, per the company.

The problem, Schnatter posited, was that Papa John's had abandoned its founding principles. "It used to be an operational-driven company. Now it's a lawyer, PR-driven company," he said. "They don't run their company on principles and values."

According to Schnatter, Papa John's hasn't just suffered from an operational standpoint since he left. The pizza itself has also gotten worse. To prove this, the company founder reportedly ate 800 pizzas over an 18-month span and documented his findings on his personal TikTok account (via Men's Health). Schnatter found that the pizzas ranged from undercooked to burnt. "[Papa John's is] now are down with Little Caesars," he said in his Right Side interview. "So the thing has really got away from them."

In the wake of John Schnatter, Shaquille O'Neal became the new face of Papa John's

As Papa John's works to rehabilitate its image after founder John Schnatter's scandalous departure, it has turned to a national icon to be the new face of its brand. In 2019, Papa John's announced that former NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal was joining the board of directors, becoming a shareholder, and would become the brand ambassador as part of an $8.5 million deal (via Restaurant Business). It's worth noting he is Papa John's first African-American board member. These days, you can find the former basketball star all over Papa John's website, social media, and commercials. He also invested in several franchise locations in Georgia.

O'Neal has said he is committed to making Papa John's the top pizza chain despite its recent history. He also says he is unconcerned with Schnatter's public comments, including the suggestion that Papa John's wasn't leveraging the NBA star's full value, noting that "sometimes people don't know when to keep their mouths shut" (per CNBC).

After years of drama and falling sales, Papa John's is turning things around

Between the PR nightmare that surrounded John Schnatter's exit from Papa John's, competition from the likes of Pizza Hut and Domino's, and the perception that the pizza chain was too expensive, it was a rough couple of years for the company's bottom line. But after years of falling sales, Papa John's has finally managed to turn things around — so much so that QSR Magazine named it the most transformational brand of 2020. 

In 2020, Papa John's saw record-setting sales, due to a range of factors. The company points mainly to its new leadership in the wake of Schnatter's exit, along with the launch of several new product innovations. An increase in pandemic-induced pizza cravings didn't hurt either (via Papa John's). Things like the Epic Stuffed Crust pizza are keeping sales climbing (via QSR), and the company reported strong sales figures in 2021.

Papa John's had to do damage control in Cleveland after a franchisee made fun of LeBron James

There's no apology like a pizza apology. Papa John's proved that to be true when it offered thousands of 23-cent pizzas to Cleveland residents back in 2008. The move was an attempt to amend a foul one of the chain's franchisees committed against the city's best basketball player and his fans. According to, after a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards, a Papa John's owner in Washington, D.C., printed up T-shirts labeling Cavaliers star LeBron James as a crybaby. Needless to say, this didn't go over well in Ohio. To express its forgiveness for the rogue franchisee, Papa John's announced it would sell 23-cent pizzas at all its northeast Ohio locations for one day. The price was a nod to James' 23 jersey number.

Clevelanders were more than happy to accept the apology. Hundreds of pizza-craving customers showed up at each of the chain's 41 locations across the area. Some stores even had to hand out vouchers as the day went on because they would not be able to make enough pizzas for everyone in line before closing. "We're certainly a bit surprised about how darn popular this is," said Tim North, vice president of Papa John's Northeast region. In addition to the nearly-free pizzas, Papa John's also donated $10,000 to the Cavaliers Youth Fund, according to ESPN.

Papa John's debuted Papa Bowls in August 2022

Are you someone who always leaves their pizza crust untouched? Do you enjoy the meat and cheeses of a pizza without the heaviness of the bread? If so, Papa John's may be your new go-to pizza place. In August, the pizza chain announced the debut of its latest menu item: Papa Bowls. Hoping to attract carb-avoiding diners, these dishes have all the ingredients of a pizza, minus the dough. According to Restaurant Business Online, Papa John's hopes the bowls will be the start of a new menu category.

"We are very excited to offer Papa Bowls as a new menu category and as a new way consumers can experience our premium ingredients," said Scott Rodriguez, Papa John's senior vice president of menu strategy and product Innovation. "Our signature crust continues to be a beloved favorite, but we know that sometimes customers crave something different. We want them to know we are committed to delivering on all of those cravings through our menu."

The bowls are available in three varieties. Italian Meats features pizza and alfredo sauces with pepperoni, sausage, meatballs, green peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Chicken Alfredo has grilled chicken with spinach, mushrooms, onions, and tomatoes swimming in creamy alfredo and garlic parmesan sauces. Last but not least, Garden Veggie comes with spinach, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and banana peppers covered in pizza sauce and garlic parmesan. All the bowls are topped with a melted three-cheese blend and Italian seasoning.

Papa John's founder insured his hands for millions

What is a man without his hands? If you're Papa John's founder John Schnatter, you believe the answer is $15 million poorer. To protect himself against such a potential loss, the pizza mogul took the unusual step in 2015 to sign a $15.4 million insurance policy for his hands, according to Thrillist. The unique policy, issued by Lloyd's of London, put Schnatter in the rarefied club of celebrities who have had a body part insured, including Jennifer Lopez, Heidi Klum, Madonna, Julia Roberts, and David Beckham (via the Daily Mail).

To ensure his hands were valued properly, Schnatter had his mitts examined by an expert palm reader. "Papa John has a rich imagination — this is demonstrated by his headline — the space between the thumb and index finger," said Amy Garner, one of the UK's premier palmists. "This is ideal for creating eye-catching pizza toppings and delicious recipes, essential in the business of making and selling pizzas." Garner further explained that Schnatter's right index finger is longer than his ring finger, which points out his ambition and vision. "These qualities have enabled Papa John to take his small business of selling pizzas from the back of his father's tavern and turn it into a global pizza success." Finally, Garner revealed that Schnatter's Apollo lines prove he "is in alignment with his soul purpose — meaning he really was born to make pizzas."

Peyton Manning once owned several Papa John's restaurants

In 2010, Papa John's signed a deal with the NFL to become the league's official pizza (via FranchiseWire). Not long after, the chain recruited one of the sport's biggest stars, quarterback Peyton Manning, to serve as a spokesperson. In 2012, that partnership went one step further when Manning signed a deal to take ownership of 21 Papa John's franchises located throughout the Denver area, according to ESPN. "It's a smart investment now and will be long after I'm done playing football," Manning said at the time.

But, like his playing career, the quarterback's relationship with the pizza chain didn't last forever. In 2018, Manning abruptly sold all of his restaurants, which had since grown to a total of 31. According to CNBC, the football star remained a Papa John's brand ambassador as part of a long-term partnership agreement.

It appears, at least on the surface, that the breakup was a matter of Manning siding with the league he once worked for. According to USA Today, in late 2017, Papa John's founder John Schnatter blamed the national anthem protests taking place throughout the NFL for the chain's declining revenue. The statement created a rift between the pizza chain and the league. On February 26, 2018, Manning sold his franchises. Just two days later, the NFL announced it was ending its partnership with Papa John's.

Papa John's snagged a Guinness World Record in 2015

What better way to celebrate a milestone than by breaking a world record? That was Papa John's reasoning when the company opened its 300th store in the United Kingdom in June of 2015. To mark the occasion, the pizza company set a new Guinness World Record for most people tossing pizza dough simultaneously. In total, 338 staff members and volunteers flung some dough in the air and went into the history books. According to rules established by Guinness, each participant had to toss the dough for at least one minute and stretch it out to a minimum of 30.5 centimeters in diameter. That proved to be no problem, as Papa John's easily surpassed the previous record of 278 people set by Italy's Istituto Nazionale della Pizza.

"Today has been a fantastic way to showcase the passion we have at Papa John's for pizza and to demonstrate how much skill goes into making pizzas," company founder John Schnatter said. "I am delighted that we have broken the record today — a great way to begin our 300th store opening celebrations in Wimbledon tomorrow."

Unfortunately for Papa John's, its record was quite short-lived. Just a few months later, a new Guinness World Record was set when 511 people in Shanghai, China tossed pizza dough together.

Papa John's eliminated artificial ingredients from its menu items in 2016

Nowadays, just about every major fast-food chain is removing artificial ingredients from its menu (via South Bend Tribune). That makes Papa John's a clear trendsetter. According to Insider, Papa John's became the first national pizza chain to remove artificial ingredients from its menu when it did so in 2016. In January of that year, the company stated it would cut artificial flavors and synthetic colors from its pizza ingredients and toppings, desserts, and sauce selections. "We closed out 2015 announcing our commitment to serve chicken raised without antibiotics and are ringing in the New Year artificial-flavor and synthetic-color free," Sean Muldoon, Papa John's senior vice president of research and development, said in a statement. "We're so proud to be able to show our customers how much we care about what they're eating."

Papa John's completed the process of removing the artificial ingredients in October 2016. Founder John Schnatter noted that the chain had also transitioned to using only cage-free eggs, as well as chickens that were fed a vegetarian diet and raised without human or animal antibiotics (via Papa John's). "I started this company with a commitment to providing families with the highest-quality ingredients on our menu," Schnatter said. "I knew that with better ingredients, we could create better pizzas for everyone to enjoy. We continue to deliver on this promise today."

Iggy Azalea probably isn't a big fan of Papa John's

In 2015, Papa John's found itself on the wrong end of an angry tirade from, of all people, Iggy Azalea. The incident was a result of the unprofessional acts of one rogue employee. The Australian rapper alleged that a Papa John's deliveryman gave her phone number to his family member, who then proceeded to inundate Azalea with calls and texts (via Eater). "My brother delivered something from Papa John's to u and he gave me the number on Friday night," one of the text messages read.

Azalea expressed her anger on social media, taking the pizza chain to task in a series of tweets. Initially, Papa John's had only a lighthearted response, tweeting, "#We should have known better. Customer and employee privacy is important to us. Please don't #bounce us!" "Bounce" was a reference to Azalea's song of the same name.

The musician was none too pleased with this reaction. "I want answers @papajohns why is customer confidentiality a joke to your company?" she tweeted back. This led Papa John's parent company to finally treat the situation with the seriousness it deserves. "Privacy of our customers and employees is extremely important to us," the pizza chain said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. "Papa John's has taken appropriate disciplinary action with regard to the employee involved. We are reaching out directly to Ms. Azalea and hope to resolve this incident and make it right."