• Panned Performance

    Tags: Dough

Call it ironic: Papa John's franchisee Frank Carney -- co-founder of Pizza Hut -- is test-marketing PJ's new pan pizza in Wichita, Kan., where Pizza Hut was founded.

Or call it intentional: Carney helped develop Pizza Hut's Pan Pizza, that chain's current best seller. And few in the industry know more about making a pan product pan out than him.

Whichever adjective you choose, Carney says he's having a ball at the middle of a new product rollout.

"When you get to take part in something like this, something that could go national, it's a kick in the butt," said Carney, 63, and a franchisee of 130 Papa John's stores. "The timing of when it came out was up to (Papa John's), but I sure was interested in getting it in my stores and participating in testing."

Frank Carney, Papa John's franchisee.

According to Carney, market tests began in February at three stores in towns just outside of Wichita. To stay below the radar, advertising was limited to box toppers, door hangers and small ads in those towns' newspapers.

On April 19, the product entered test in Wichita proper with the support of radio ads. TV and print ads, Carney said, will follow in late April.

Initial sales results are good, he said.

"They're coming back for another in the small towns where we first put it," he said, though he declined to say how much of the sales mix is attributable to pan sales.

Built for Speed

The pan pizza is built on a manufactured, parbaked dough shell, which Carney said makes final assembly as simple as the company's parbaked, sauce-and-top thin product. Cooking time for the pan is the same as for other pizzas.

"It's easy to put out an 8, 9 or 10 with this product," said Carney, referring to Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John's 10-point quality grading system. "It's really harder to miss on this product than on our traditional pizza (made from fresh dough.) It's very clean and efficient in the store, and employees like that."

Introductory price for a two-topping Papa's pan and a two-liter soda is $9.99. According to Carney, the pizza "isn't a whole lot different from Pizza Hut's."

Pizza Hut spokesperson Patty Sullivan said the company's policy is not to comment on its competitors, and that since the test isn't being conducted in Dallas, where her company is based, no one could discern whether the pizza was similar to its own.

This Is Only a Test

Whether Papa John's entire system will get the pan pizza is a question Carney said he can't answer. Attempts to speak with a representative at the chain's headquarters were unsuccessful.

Carney did say that the cost in time and money of such an undertaking is enormous. Crust development began about a year ago, he added, and because of its exacting nature, research and development is time-consuming. Packaging and positioning follow that, and only then do customer tests begin.

"Just like Pizza Hut, I'm sure we'll have markets that are 30 percent and markets that are 60 percent (pan pizza sales). And if we can be in that range, I'll be tickled to death."

Frank Carney

"They've still got a tremendous workload ahead of them even now," said Carney, adding that Pizza Hut's pan took two years to develop and push out systemwide. "Papa John's could take even more than two years once it's all done."

Of course, customers have to try the product, and then, if repeat demand follows, the product is introduced to other markets.

"(Sales) will spike at first and then settle down, so if you look at numbers now or next week, you have to understand those are not going to be long-term numbers," Carney said. "After all the hubbub and media is over, you see what kind of mix you end up with, and then you need to broaden the test to more markets."

One Voice Among Many

Carney said he'd suggested several years ago that Papa John's try a pan pizza, but the decision to do it now is solely a corporate directive.

Company founder, president and CEO, John Schnatter, has long championed the notion that a limited menu keeps operations simple, making Papa John's characteristically cautious about adding new items. That's a wise strategy, said Carney.

"It's a virtue, not a vice, to go slow," he said. "I don't like new-product-of-the-month things at all."

When Pizza Hut added its pan pie, Carney said it was the company's first new product in 20 years. "We took thin as far as it would go, and when it ran out of gas and wasn't providing consistent sales increases any more, we tried pan.

"So if you think of it that way, we were really damn slow compared to (Papa John's)."

Does adding the product -- potentially Papa John's third new pizza in 2002, preceded by the spinach Alfredo and six cheese pizza -- represent a departure from Papa John's foundational thinking?

Carney doesn't think so. He said that long-term trial better ensures the acceptance of a new product into thousands of markets and stores. In other words, though the pan may sell in Wichita, there's no guarantee it'll work elsewhere.

What Carney said he knows for certain is that Pizza Hut's pan generated incredible numbers, sales totals he believes Papa John's product can achieve.

"Just like Pizza Hut, I'm sure we'll have markets that are 30 percent and markets that are 60 percent," he said regarding store sales mix. "And if we can be in that range, I'll be tickled to death."

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