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Papa John’s: Come to papa

Photos courtesy Papa John’s Pizza

By Mark Murphy
I’ve been a Papa John’s Pizza franchisee for 28 years, bought and sold dozens of stores in the U.S. and have a hand in 54 of them in Canada. But as the master franchisee for the brand in the Prairie provinces, I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve built along the way and the franchisees I’ve been able to help over the years.

When I opened the first Papa John’s pizzeria in Calgary in 2000, I knew I would be bringing the brand’s ‘Better Ingredients. Better Pizza’ promise to a whole new market. Sixteen years later, we’ve welcomed the 100th location and are working to open 100 more in Western Canada in the short term. Not bad for someone who had no money and no experience in the quick-service industry when he first started out.

My old Kentucky home
When my business partners and I first entered the Canadian market, I called Calgary home for a few years. My roots, however, are firmly planted south of the border, specifically in Louisville, Ky., where 
I was born in 1962. Growing up in a lower middle-class home, I was one in a family of six kids. My father owned a small masonry company and was pretty hard-working. He set a great example for my siblings and me, so much so that by the time I was 12 years old, I had a paper route and sold newspapers on the street corner. At 14 years of age, I had a lawn care service, and by 16, I was scooping ice cream at the local Baskin-Robbins for about $2 an hour. And when I wasn’t keeping our neighbours’ yards neat and well-manicured, I was helping my dad lay bricks on weekends. I didn’t mind, though. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so if I wanted something, I knew I was going to have to work to pay for it myself. It gave me a sense of pride to be able to pay for what 
I wanted with my own money.

Although my brothers and sisters were all over-achievers, I didn’t really enjoy going to school and my grades reflected that. I always played sports in school, especially basketball and football. But while my friends grew taller and got stronger, I didn’t as much, and turned to wrestling instead. With my size and build, I was pretty good at it. Wrestling taught me discipline, as did my coach, Orville Williams. He kind of took me under his wing and helped me win several 
district titles.

When I graduated from high school in 1981, I decided to enter a trade school and took a two-year associate degree in electrical engineering. I was pretty good at math, although I struggled with dyslexia. The good grades I was earning gave me confidence, and two years later, I graduated at the top of my class, a far cry from second to last when I finished high school.

I may have been born in Kentucky, but I can toss pizza dough like a Naples native.

My first job out of college was with a company that built audio systems for luxury cars. A few years later, I landed a position as an electrical engineer at a naval weapons facility in Louisville, working on anti-submarine missile launchers and rebuilding torpedo tube assemblies.

You would think working at a naval weapons facility would be a cool job for a young man, but to be honest, it was very tedious, boring work. Digging through schematics for hours at a time was far from exciting, but the job paid the bills and helped me support my young family. After a few years, though, I started thinking it was time to do something different. That’s when I found Papa John’s.

Prepping for Papa John’s
As it happens, a friend of mine knew John Schnatter, Papa John’s founder, and had opened a franchise in Louisville. Short of drivers one weekend, my friend asked me to deliver pizzas as a favour, which I did for the next three or four weeks. I’d never heard of Papa John’s, but judging by the number of pizzas I was delivering, I knew people liked it.

Although Papa John’s is a publicly listed company today, it was early days for the franchise when I was introduced to the brand in 1987. It was just four years earlier that John founded the company after knocking down a broom closet in the back of his father’s tavern in Jeffersonville, Ind. Selling his car, he bought $1,600 worth of used pizza equipment and sold pizzas to the tavern’s patrons. A year later, he moved into the space next door and grew the business into a franchise. After an initial public offering (IPO) in 1993, Papa John’s opened hundreds more locations. Today, it has more than 4700 stores in 37 countries and territories, delivering pizza made with fresh, never-frozen original dough, signature pizza sauce made with vine-ripened tomatoes, and 100 per cent real cheese made from mozzarella.

I remember thinking as I was driving from house to house delivering pizzas that this brand could go somewhere and I should get involved if I could. Problem was, I had no money and zero experience in the pizza business other than my weekend delivery job. I was determined to make it work, and turned to my father for help. He agreed to help by co-signing a loan for me. In return, I made him 20 per cent owner in my first store, which I opened in Prospect, Ky., in 1988. With the experience I gained working with my dad, 
I built my own store, laying every brick, putting up all the drywall and installing every counter myself.

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