Papa John’s launched garlic parmesan crust in November, roughly 90 days after Lynch joined the company. It marked the first time Papa John’s added to its six-ingredient, never-frozen original pizza dough in company history. And the tone was set.
“We have gone back to the future, if you will,” Lynch says. “We are now focused on highlighting how special our products are, both our core products, because we use better ingredients, and our new products, because they are different and innovative. People haven’t seen them in a pizza company before.”
One example being the “Papadia,” a lunch-designed option inspired by the Italian folded flatbreads found in Northern Italy. Then came Jalapeno Popper Rolls. An extra-large “Shaq-a-Roni” pizza made in collaboration with board member and franchisee Shaquille O’Neal. Buffalo Chicken Papadias. A partnership with Dole on better pineapple pizzas.
Just to spotlight Shaq’s pizza for one, from July to August, the company sold more than 2 million of them. It committed to donating $1 to the Papa John’s Foundation for each and wound up giving back north of $3 million.
“That’s the mindset here. We are all about innovation,” Lynch says. “We are all about challenging ourselves to be the best Papa John’s, not trying to be who we’re not and compete on the strength of our competition.”
Lynch says Papa John’s has “a whole pipeline” ready to go for 2021. It starts with “Epic Stuffed Crust,” which he termed “the biggest launch we’ve ever done.”
It’s only Papa John’s second dough innovation (following the garlic parmesan crust) and will be supported by the brand’s largest holistic marketing effort ever in terms of creating awareness, Lynch says. The company also allowed Papa Rewards members a six-day sneak peek—from December 21 to December 27—before releasing nationwide December 28 for $12. That’s also something Papa John’s never attempted.
Lynch says stuffed crust took about a year to develop. Fresh dough, made with flour, water, sugar, soybean oil, salt, and yeast in Papa John’s case, and hand-stuffed with extra cheese, topped with sauce, more cheese, and then finished with a guest’s pick of topping.
Lynch knows people, inevitably, will draw comparisons to Pizza Hut’s product, but it’s not something he’s hung up on. Papa John’s will market it not as stuffed crust, but as Papa John’s crust, stuffed. The point being, just as Lynch noted from his first day on the job, to deliver and differentiate around the company’s biggest source of pride—fresh dough. Papa John’s has a vertically integrated manufacturing and distribution network primarily built to facilitate all of its fresh dough, made every day and delivered to restaurants. So it might as well leverage the investment.
“That’s what went into the strategic thinking around choosing this as the innovation that we want to put all of our efforts up against, because it does highlight the biggest point of differentiation we have versus some of our biggest competitors,” Lynch says.
The biggest operational kink was speed of preparation and making sure the dough sealed cheese in without it leaking out. It took roughly six months to figure out how to make it properly, at scale, and another six to remove operational complexity.
Papa John’s tested Epic Stuffed Crust in Lexington, Kentucky; San Antonio, Texas; and Cincinnati, Ohio. It did so across company-owned and franchised stores. Even without marketing, Lynch says, it was Papa John’s highest mixing innovation launched in a pilot.
“It’s definitely taken hold,” Lynch says. “And I think everyone here is excited and inspired by what we could accomplish.”