Feb. 7, 2006
An old Jewish proverb reads like this: "What you don't see with your eyes, don't witness with your mouth."
If only a real estate agent in Wichita, Kan., had followed that advice when he heard a Papa John's franchisee was hunting for new space for a dine-in unit. The agent told a reporter at the city's daily paper, the Wichita Eagle, which then ran a story claiming, "Papa John's Pizza is close to opening sit-down restaurants in the Wichita area."
Terry Newman, president and operating partner of Papa John's Wichita, said the story "went way too far" but wasn't totally untrue. While he and his partners have approached Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John's International about opening a dine-in unit there, the No.3 pizza chain's first such restaurant on American soil isn't even close to opening.
"All we've done is asked corporate to look at the possibility of doing some full-service dining," said Newman. "They've been very receptive to it and they're willing to sit down with us and discuss how we can do it. But that's it."
Papa John's corporate gave a similar answer when questioned about its test of a pan pizza in Wichita three years ago. It was only a test, nothing to get excited about, the company said. But in 2005, when Papa's Perfect Pan rolled out nationally, it was championed the company's most successful new product launch ever.
So is a dine-in test only a test?
Tish Muldoon, Papa John's community relations director, insists it is, adding the whole dine-in notion is merely an idea for now.
"This is one franchisee who wants to try this in a test market, it's not something for our whole system," said Muldoon. "We have no plans to change our system's focus."
Franchisees just want to have fun
That a possible Papa John's dine-in restaurant is just one franchisee's idea might be easier for industry watchers to believe were it not for some curious parts of the story. If and
when it opens, it'll be in Wichita, where Pizza Hut got its start nearly 50 years ago, and where that company's co-founder, Frank Carney, still calls home. Carney is also a partner in Papa John's Wichita, and Newman is a Pizza Hut veteran.
Were Papa John's to launch a dine-in concept in the U.S., it wouldn't be the company's first. According to Tish Muldoon, community relations director at Papa John's, some of the chain's 40 South Korea units are dine-in restaurants. Cultural standards there do not permit someone to bring food to another's house without a relationship being established beforehand.
"We have to have dine-in there because customers first want to eat in the restaurant, get to know its food, talk to the manager and then, after that, allow someone to deliver to their homes."
Yes, said Newman, and his vision of a true Papa John's restaurant would resemble neither a common Pizza Hut nor its spin-off, Pizza Hut Italian Bistro. Facing off with a key competitor is not the reason behind the idea, rather growing his business in a new and challenging way is.
"I was looking for a way to have a lot more fun and let our customers do the same thing," said Newman. "We're already a very successful franchise, so it's not about taking something from our competitors. We just think it could be a little something else for our customers. In fact, customers have asked for it."
Newman envisions a dine-in unit as a "sort of Papa John's and More" that would serve the chain's current pizza-centered menu along with sandwiches and salads. High foot traffic at one of his current stores located in a Wichita business district sells breakfast and pizza by the slice. It offers counter service only, limited seating, Internet access, multiple TVs and newspapers -- all invitations for customers to linger a bit. That got Newman thinking about the possibility of a concept twist.
"I can't go to your house and have fun with you with the way we operate now, all I can do is deliver to your door and say thank you," he said. "But with this, you can come to mine and we can have fun."
Newman is undecided whether his dine-in designs will full table service or whether staff would will only deliver food to customers' tables. What he does know from observing casual-dining and quick-casual segments is diners like a mix of staff attention and self-service, such as refilling their own drinks. Allowing customers to enjoy a meal at their own pace is a point of differentiation that delivery concepts like Papa John's don't offer, he said.
"I don't want to change what Papa John's does at all, I want to add to what we do," he said. "I believe we can serve a clientele who can come in for
lunch with ... somebody who doesn't want pizza, but would like to have a salad or a sandwich. If we give them that, they still eat together."
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The Papa's blessing
Were the dining concept fully developed rather than truly nascent, Newman said it can't be developed without corporate approval. The proven pizza player made its fortune with delco units churning out a fairly narrow menu, so it's not about to develop a spin-off concept without a great deal of study. But he called the fact that company officials are considering it "a positive sign."
"Just that they stopped and thought, 'We'll talk about this,' instead of saying, 'No,' shows what tremendous partners they are," he said. "The (Wichita Eagle) story said this is coming soon, but that's not right. This could be a year or longer from now."