Amanda Clark, the new chief development officer of Papa John’s, explains how the pizza franchise rediscovered its flavor.
Interview by Kieran McLoone, deputy editor for Global Franchise
Amanda Clark joined Papa John’s as the pizza franchise’s CDO back in February 2020, right at the start of the coronavirus pandemic’s ascent in the U.S. Despite this less-than-ideal introduction to the world of big pizza, Amanda has since been developmental in bringing on five million new customers for Papa John’s and achieving consecutive months of double-digit growth.
We got the chance to speak with Amanda about how Papa John’s managed to navigate this unprecedented period, and what its success could mean for franchisees joining the brand in the months, and years, to come.
KM: What was it like joining Papa John’s at the beginning of a pandemic, and how have you found the role since then?
AC: It’s been an interesting experience for sure and a positive one. It’s definitely been a test of leadership which is a great thing for me to reflect on afterward.
When I joined Papa John’s, the brand had begun its ascent and started its turnaround. It had a lot of new management in place, and it had started to transform the innovation pipeline; we were really starting to get our plans in place on how to move forward.
Then, probably a month after I joined, the pandemic hit. This was basically all-hands-on-deck, on how do we quickly adapt our business model to succeed with both employees and customers.
“We have actually gained five million new customers in the past four months”
Honestly, it has really strengthened my resolve. In terms of my role, it was a different kind of start-up. Usually, I’m travelling all of the time for development, but that’s something I couldn’t do. On a positive note, it really enabled me to get to know members of my team better; I got to know some of our franchisees a little bit deeper, albeit not in person.
KM: Papa John’s seems to be in more demand than ever before – why do you think that’s the case?
AC: I think it’s a couple of things. Papa John’s does delivery well; I think during a pandemic, when folks feel very unsure about going out to eat, they want a reliable delivery choice at their home – this is something that Papa John’s can provide.
We have actually gained five million new customers in the past four months. I think that’s due to a combination of things: because of the consistency in our delivery and the ability for us to provide no-contact delivery to consumers to feel safe, but also because of the innovation we offer. We’re providing customers with something different but also something that is comforting and bringing families together.
KM: How has Papa John’s achieved consecutive months of double-digit growth, and how can franchisees benefit from this in the long-term?
AC: Last quarter our unit profits were the highest we’ve seen in several years, and our closure rates were the lowest in 10 years. Great unit economics and a great business model are the foundations that we need for development moving forward, and I’m encouraged by the several things working in our favour. One is the innovation pipeline which is the foundation for any healthy brand – especially in QSR. In the past, there were a lot of guardrails put on innovation around what the brand could and couldn’t innovate on.
When Rob Lynch [president and CEO] and our new management team came on board, those guardrails came off. I’m continually surprised and hungry when I get into the test kitchen and see the amazing things that our R&D team has. What consumers have seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to innovating the brand.
“We’re the fourth-largest pizza brand, and while it’s easy to say that negatively, I say it with excitement”
The second thing that I’m encouraged by is the current runway for growth. We’re the fourth-largest pizza brand, and while it’s easy to say that negatively, I say it with excitement. We’re not overly penetrated which is great from a CDO’s point of view, because it means there are so many stores that we can build. Not only in the U.S. but globally.
KM: NBA star Shaquille O’Neal joined Papa John’s back in 2019; could you detail what role he plays in the franchise?
AC: The thing that differentiates Shaquille from any other ambassador or endorsement that I’ve worked with is that he’s an active member of the business.
He’s not only in commercials; he’s an active member of the board. He’s in the board meetings asking questions and wants to know what we’re doing with regard to development. He owns franchise restaurants in Atlanta, which brings a new perspective to the idea of celebrity endorsement. He’s truly invested in the brand. He’s always pushing us to do more and do better, and is asking tough questions: what are we doing with communities? How can we help?
This was reflected in the Shaq- a-Roni pizza we just launched, where we gave over $2m to local communities. That’s something that Shaq always pushes for. He adds much more than just the face of a celebrity; he’s truly invested in the brand and pushes us to be better.
KM: What’s in the pipeline for Papa John’s as we look ahead to 2021?
AC: We’re currently in 47 countries, and I’m very excited about future development. As I said, we’re currently the fourth-largest pizza brand which means we have a lot of room for expansion. We currently don’t have restaurants in Australia which is a huge market for QSR, as well as Africa.
In Asia, we have a lot of white space, so there’s a lot of room for growth. The same can be said for Brazil, which is a market we’re targeting for expansion.
We’re mainly focused on having the right resources and franchisees in place to be able to take advantage of that, and we’re using the time right now to build up our infrastructure and team so that when those franchisees are ready to come and invest in those countries and our business, we’ll have the right things in place to ensure that they are successful.
***This excerpt is taken from our recent podcast conversation with Amanda Clark, which can be found alongside other exclusive interviews at globalfranchisemagazine. com/podcast