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Topping-off success

Written by Martin Morris on Monday, 01 February 2021. Posted in Interviews

Serving up a creative menu, topped-off with a strong delivery service, has proven the recipe for success at Papa John’s.

Topping-off success

Serving up a creative menu, topped-off with a strong delivery service, has proven the recipe for success at Papa John’s. Justin Gilbert, UK Director of Business Development, tells Elite Franchise how the company protects its winning formula

With a degree in marketing from Johnson C. Smith University, Justin Gilbert subsequently completed an MBA in Marketing at the Keller Graduate School of Management of DeVry University, following that up with an MBA in Human Resource Management.

Starting his career in the US with CiCi’s Pizza, later working at Domino’s as Head of Franchise Operations and then Pizza Hut UK & Ireland, where he was Director of Operations. Justin became UK Director of Business Development at Papa John’s in November 2019.

Yet despite being armed with 20 years’ experience in the pizza industry Justin is quick to point out that: “Although it’s the same industry, seeing business models work in many locations gives a unique perspective.  It means I’ve seen and worked within a lot of different formats and I bring this knowledge to Papa John’s.”


In his current role, Justin is responsible for Papa John’s retail portfolio, including store construction, acquisition plus franchisee recruitment, as well as overseeing a team based at the company’s UK Quality Control Centre (QCC) in Milton Keynes.

On the face of it pizza restaurants have been a bright spot amid a struggling restaurant industry more generally as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, many leading pizza chains have managed to grow sales into the double-digits in 2020 due to their continued investment in takeout and delivery; as well as the prioritization of value, according to a recent Mintel report. 

Yet in what is a notoriously competitive industry challenges have emerged nonetheless because of COVID-19. “The challenges faced in the past year by everyone, in both their personal and professional lives have been unprecedented.  From a business perspective, there has been a need to adapt and find new ways of working,” says Justin, adding: “At the same time there has been an opportunity like never before to demonstrate the value of our products and the strength of our delivery service.”  

Though Papa John’s doesn’t provide UK specific sales figures, the company’s most recent quarterly results indicated strong sales domestically. “We have been very fortunate as we’ve been able to continue to open new stores.  Our focus now is on keeping a positive momentum for growth in 2021.”

Despite COVID’s challenges Papa John’s has been less impacted than some, even if it has meant tweaking existing ways of working. Noting the company’s restaurants exist to serve their communities, Justin says: “We have been in a fortunate position to be able to continue delivering hot food in line with Government guidelines during COVID when many eat-in establishments have not been able to do so.

“This has meant we’ve been able to support the communities where our stores are based, not only by delivering to those who could not leave their homes during the lockdowns, but also by continuing to provide much-needed employment,” he further notes.“ Our pizza, made with the freshest, finest quality ingredients, has remained popular throughout as many people enjoy a real treat even more in difficult times,” he adds.

It has also meant being especially attentive to changing government policy regarding health and safety for employees and customers in restaurants, takeaways and deliveries; taking on board as well the regional variations in policy prior to the most recent lock down.  

“We have rolled with the policy changes very successfully, making sure that we have been able to serve our customers in line with these policies, while at the same time continuing to provide much-needed employment in a safe working environment,” says Justin.

Off-premise innovations and future preparedness have also been much to the fore. “We have a unique proposition which is flexible enough to allow different types of businesses to leverage our brand and create incremental revenue streams,” notes Justin, adding  “those that have an existing customer base and want to add the value of our brand to enhance their offering can create an overlap and a new business opportunity.” 

Regarding preparedness, the recent opening of a store at Stadium MK, home to Milton Keynes Dons football club, is a case in point. The store serves local residents around the stadium and as soon as football fans are able to return to watch matches, they will be able to enjoy Papa John’s pizzas at the same time.

Alongside preparedness menu innovation has also proven important. And for good reason given consumer behaviour patterns are forever changing.

"You have to have a deep understanding of consumers in order not only to anticipate their choices, but also to stimulate their taste buds.  Consumer trends and needs are always evolving and they lead our approach to innovation,” says Justin.

What this means in practice is looking for new ways to fill voids in the market, according to Justin. “We want our customers to be able to access our brand in new ways and this will contribute towards our growth in the UK.  It’s a competitive sector and we constantly strive to be better,” he points out.

For example, the company launched its Bee Sting Pizza last year - a fiery honey-drizzled pizza combining a hot and spicy base of Amarillo chilli, topped with signature pepperoni, mozzarella, fresh green chilli and a sweet wild flower honey drizzle, to balance the sting of the heat, as Justin describes it.  “It went down well!   Our vegan range has also become hugely popular,” he adds.

The company’s marketing team meanwhile is focused on new and innovative ways to create partnerships - becoming a partner of ParalympicsGB - as the team prepares for the rescheduled Paralympic games in the summer in Tokyo - to cite one example.  In this case the brand will lend its support by fundraising, joining three athlete ambassadors, David Weir, Alfie Hewett and Alice Tai, on their journey to the games. 

As Justin puts it: “The digital marketing campaign, ‘We are Limitless’, launched last August, aims to raise awareness of how each athlete ambassador has overcome challenges they’ve faced and acts as a rallying cry, encouraging both Papa John’s staff and customers to break limits and aiming to collectively raise £250,000 for ParalympicsGB.”

In a separate deal, announced in October 2020, it will also become the Official Title Sponsor of the EFL Trophy; the exclusive partnership with the English Football League, which will run until at least the end of the 2022/23 season, seeing the competition become known as the ‘Papa John’s Trophy’ with immediate effect.  In addition to the title sponsorship, Papa John’s is also the Official Pizza of the EFL. 

The commercial logic behind this move is the EFL’s reach into communities, offering local activation on a national scale with clubs spanning every corner of the country, often sharing locality with at least one of Papa John’s 450 branches in the UK. 

Of course for would-be franchisees, who will be asking what is so different about Papa John’s vs. other pizza chains out there, Justin is quick to point out “the culture of our brand, the quality of our products, our understanding of the consumer, and our commitment to our franchisees.” And crucially: “Unlike many pizza chains and other QSR businesses, we are 100% franchised.”

While providing the finest and freshest ingredients for its pizzas is a given there is also the ‘fun factor’ too, as Justin describes it, noting: “It’s the people behind the brand that can deliver on these promises, so we help our franchisees reach their ambitions.  The whole team effort ensures we supply the very best pizza when and where our customers want to enjoy it, to make any occasion really special.”

Running a Papa John’s franchise means you run your own business, “safe in the knowledge that you have one of the world’s largest pizza businesses supporting you every step of the way,” says Justin.  

For successful candidates help is provided with location selection, training, national marketing and full turn-key opening of stores.  As a franchise, the company supplies all the assistance needed to get your successful Papa John’s up and running.

It is also worth pointing out that there are opportunities for ambitious individuals to run multi-unit franchisees across the UK - these being mainly high-street locations. “Even though we have 450 stores in the UK, there are still many towns where residents currently can’t enjoy Papa John’s and we want to bring our pizza to them,” says Justin.  

Another opportunity is for other businesses with an existing customer base to leverage the company’s brand by including a Papa John’s on site.  “We call these ‘non-traditional’ stores and depending on requirements we can offer flexible formats,” says Justin.

For example, the company recently opened a new store at Bunn Leisure’s South Coast resort in Selsey.  Owned by Cove Communities, the resort is a multi-award winning, premier lifestyle holiday park with activities and entertainment for all the family.  When the park is closed to guests for the winter, Papa John’s still serves the local community, keeping the team employed all year round.

Anyone interested in taking on a Papa John’s franchise goes through the same basic process, beginning with a one-to-one discussion and a discovery day. Discovery meetings, unsurprisingly, are currently being conducted online.

Self evidently these ‘getting-to-know-you’ meetings give would-be franchisees greater insight into how Papa John’s tried and tested franchising concept works. It’s also an opportunity for both parties to ask questions to see if they are a good fit for one another.  Successful candidates then go on to develop a business plan and, if agreed, Papa John’s will provide all the help necessary to construct and open their own store.

Typically, the investment is between £185,000 and £225,000 (excluding VAT and freehold), of which £100,000 should be in liquid funds.

Becoming a Papa John’s franchisee isn’t for everyone though and individuals will need to be ambitious, hard-working and be good leaders. As Justin points out: “We welcome applicants from all walks of life and our franchisees all have very different backgrounds.  In common, they are team players and good communicators, always wanting to deliver the best outcome for their staff, customers and the growth of the brand.”

It also means signing-up to the company’s core values. “We ensure our customers and team members all belong and are included.  Doing the right thing means approaching the working environment with integrity, character and a sense of the communities we serve, “says Justin.  And “We also like to think differently.  We know we need to innovate to win and at the end of the day we all need to remember it’s all about pizza - it has to be fun! ,” he adds.

Going forward, the company, despite the continued success of its franchised high street locations, is looking to expand its reach by opening in new types of locations such as holiday parks, stadiums, leisure attractions and other ‘non-traditional’ venues, according to Justin.

“Non-traditional franchised outlets generally have a slightly different business model compared to our high-street retail stores.  They may be collection only or may have reduced or seasonal opening hours have a pizza slice offer or a flexible menu, “says Justin. 

He adds: “Just like our pizzas, we aim to ensure we have the right ingredients for everyone and so now, we can offer flexible franchise options to suit a bespoke development plan.  This may be a franchise package which includes a fully fitted out store, a kiosk, modular unit, or a mobile kitchen.”

Irrespective of the options the company is open to new ideas and “looks forward to working with operators who are committed to delivering to the communities they serve.” And that explains why it continues to go from strength to strength.

About the Author

Martin Morris

Martin Morris has more than 30 years of experience writing about topics for national and trade papers, ranging from banking and investment through to energy and computer security. Technology is transforming the financial landscape and it is my job, I believe, to both engage with and inform readers about the rapid changes that are underway there and elsewhere.

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