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 as "lady chinky eyes" (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 the N-word 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 percent share of the company (per Restaurant Business).

Papa John's claims the pizza recipe has not changed, but not everyone is convinced

In the wake of his departure from Papa John's, founder and former CEO John Schnatter has not had very nice things to say about the company. And while his claims that executives he trusted to run his business stole the company out from under him could be taken as nothing more than bitter mud-slinging (via WDRB), some of his other comments have sparked a public debate among pizza lovers. Specifically, Schnatter claimed that Papa John's pizza tastes different since he was removed from the company. Papa John's responded that it has not made any changes to its pizza recipe or the way it's prepared (via CNBC). However, not everyone was convinced, and some customers have also questioned whether or not Papa John's pizza has changed, and not for the better. 

Despite Papa John's insistence that nothing is different, it's worth noting that it's kinda hard to verify those claims entirely. That's because the company was very secretive about their ingredients until a journalist called them out in 2013.

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. 

Last year, 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). Only time will tell if Papa John's can keep the momentum going, but things like the new Epic Stuffed Crust pizza are keeping sales climbing for now (via QSR).