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THE BIG INTERVIEW: The ex-Pizza Hut and Domino’s man now powering Papa John’s kitchens

Justin Gilbert, director of business development

In the hotly-contested pizza delivery space, speed and volume counts for everything and few understand this better than Papa John’s. Director of business development, Justin Gilbert — who was recently brought in to oversee the chain’s UK retail portfolio, including store construction and franchisee recruitment — is seeking to take advantage of untapped market opportunities to build the brand’s presence. FEJ caught up with him prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus to discuss the kitchen model serving as the foundation for its ambitions.

You joined the business back in November last year. How has your first three months in the role gone?

It has been really good. My background has primarily been in operations so stepping into the business development role gives me the opportunity to both continue to learn in a different area of the industry but also the chance to have a fresh look at how development is done. For me, it has been about soaking up all the knowledge around acquisitions and construction and all the legal components, as well as the whole franchise recruitment part.

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Tell us about the UK market for Papa John’s. How many sites do you now have and how quickly is it growing?

We are in the range of 400 sites. We are certainly in the realm of wanting to continue to grow and be able to provide Papa John’s pizza to more consumers across the UK market. We definitely believe there is more opportunity out there, and I think franchisees are excited about what lies ahead.

What is the franchise mix? Is the bulk of the portfolio operated by a small number of multi-site franchisees or do you have hundreds of individual franchisees a single store each?

We are around 100 franchisees across the UK but there is quite a mix in there, which actually has some benefits to it. As we look at the future growth of the brand, there is certainly value in the multi-store operatives in that it gives economy of scale in terms of resources. Scale is a key thing, especially in franchising, so there is always going to be turn in that environment. Some franchisees have been with us a while and others are new opportunities. From our standpoint, we are primarily focused on multi-store operatives, helping people to grow and expand from one store to multiple stores, or having people who want to enter the system with a multi-store focused approach.

You’ve got extensive experience in the sector having previously served at two major industry names in Domino’s and Pizza Hut. How does Papa John’s business model compare to those — is there clear differentiation?

There are certainly similarities, but I guess from a Papa John’s standpoint the focus of the business is franchise so part of the key to the success of it is making sure the franchisees are successful. A lot of what we are doing, and what I am doing in my role, is making sure that when franchisees are investing in new stores and growing the brand, they are getting return on investment. And ultimately, it is also about putting stores in the right place to serve the needs of consumers across the UK.

You came on board shortly after Papa John’s announced a major store refresh. I presume you are now involved in that, so what can you tell us about the progress of it and the significance of the programme to the business?

All of our new stores are in the new image. It is quite an updated, more welcoming image and somewhat tailored to each city that we open in, in that we essentially brand the store based on that location. It is also more modern than some of our other units across the estate so it just allows us to stand out and compete on the high street. With 400 stores across the UK, we have got a lot of touchpoints so it is about making sure that we are refitting those in a timely fashion. The more consistent those touchpoints can be, the better it is for the brand, for the franchisees and, ultimately, for the consumers.

I look at the oven like a car — if for some reason that engine doesn’t work then the car is not going anywhere”

You mentioned putting stores in the right location. Is there a science to that, particularly in terms of size and geography?

Yes, we typically look for anywhere from 800 to 1,200 square feet of location across the UK and there is an element of it needing to be in the right location to serve the needs of the delivery market. Quite a bit of work goes into planning that piece from our end. It is a very competitive market given the planning processes and things like that, so it takes time.

Producing high volumes of pizza at a consistent level is central to the operation’s success. What role does good kitchen design play in achieving this?

The kitchen is an essential part of our stores and being able to deliver timely and efficiently revolves around having a streamlined layout and a standard layout to our stores, which we do. I look at it from the perspective of does it really give the team members, managers and franchisees the best chance of executing efficiently? A lot of work goes into making sure that we really do select sites that allow us to build stores the way we need to for our standard. And we don’t compromise on that because we know how important it is to deliver the right outcome.

Is the kitchen area itself fairly uniform across the estate?

Yes, it is. For the most part it is pretty much the same equipment and the same standard fittings to be able to achieve that outcome.

Does it constantly require review though, or do you feel you have reached the point where the kitchen model is now as fine-tuned as it can be?

We always try to think about the business in the future and make sure that what we are doing is right and almost future-proofed, to give the teams and the franchisees the right set-up to be able to do what they need to do. That involves looking at it and understanding the opportunities. Are there things that we can do differently to have a better outcome for the team members and for the customers?

Presumably things like the ovens and the other heavy duty equipment you specify are the real workhorses of the kitchen?

Yes, I look at the oven like a car — if for some reason that engine doesn’t work then the car is not going anywhere. So we certainly try to make sure that there is a standard that we use from our oven suppliers. The make-lines, where all the toppings are held, is a key piece of equipment as well and then, of course, we have coldrooms and other equipment within the unit that are important, too.

The kitchen is an essential part of our stores and being able to deliver timely and efficiently revolves around having a streamlined layout”

Do you take the same approach to the kitchens in the UK as you would in the US? Or is there an element of localisation?

For the most part it is the same. We work with our international partners on the layouts and making sure that there is consistency across the brand. That consistency is also there from an equipment standpoint as well.

It is quite an interesting time in the sector at the moment. There is a lot happening on the delivery side, plus operators are faced with the challenge of operating from smaller footprints and seeking equipment that costs less to run. What’s on Papa John’s priority list when it comes to making your kitchens better in future?

I guess there are a couple of ways you can look at that. Firstly, how do you continue to streamline — so what are the ways you can cut down the number of steps in a process but still have that great high quality outcome. We always look at that because there is a component of speed associated with what we do in terms of delivery. Secondly, there is certainly an energy efficient standpoint and wanting to look at ways to improve the running costs of our stores.

If franchisees require new equipment or need to replace items of the equipment, is there a mechanism in place for them to be able to do that via you?

Yes, we have warranties and other things in place with all of our suppliers. That’s one of the avenues and we also make sure that everything is properly set up in the store to the suppliers’ specifications, that warranties are maintained and that franchises have all the information they need should any situations arise.

If you look at how your kitchens might evolve in future, is there a sort of holy grail for you in terms of what you would love to see from a supplier? Perhaps a specific innovation that would really transform your business?

I think you would probably get a very different answer to that were you to ask somebody who does the actual construction versus the teams in the stores. In terms of the equipment, it is always a matter of the time it takes to bake a pizza. So it would have to be if there was a way to bake a pizza faster with the same quality that we were able to deliver today. So, in a word, when you talk about time and speed of service, I think that would probably be one of the cool things.

If you look at the Papa John’s franchisees that are most successful from an operational point of view, what is it that makes them stand out?

I think it is all down to having the right people, a focused mindset and an ability to look at the solution in the problem. The franchisees that are actually the most successful are the ones that invest in making sure they have the right people, the environment for the team is right, and I guess there is a long-term outlook in terms of what they are trying to create.

Store refresh an important step for UK franchisees

All new Papa John’s retail outlets in the UK will benefit from a rebranding and updated look following the roll-out of a store refresh programme at the end of last year.

Phil Gaffer, franchise sales and business development manager at Papa John’s, says the investment reflects the chain’s commitment to providing the best quality service and pizza on the high street.

“The new format is welcoming and tailored to each location using improved layouts, a modern palette, key words and updated branding to make customers feel right at home while ordering and collecting.

“Already we are receiving great ‘feedback’ from customers as gradually the new look gets rolled out more widely to stores across the UK. For our franchisees who are investing in Papa John’s for the next 10 to 15 years, this is an important step and demonstrates our ongoing support for their franchised businesses as we continue to expand,” he adds.

The Papa John’s branch in Margate, Kent, which opened last year on the site of a former Burger King, was one of the first stores to benefit from the rebranding.

Franchisee, Manga Miles, who also runs three other Papa John’s in the region, said: “Striving for better through constant improvement is my motivation to keep on delivering Papa John’s top quality pizza. It was exciting opening one of the first new-look stores. We took over the old Burger King site and completely refurbished the premises. The town attracts many tourists in the summer season and, as well as local deliveries, it will be interesting to see how much more walk-in trade we draw in, too.”

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Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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