HOME > Chowhound > Chains >


Papa John's... Is it a cultural thing?

I spent a year in the US about a decade ago and Papa John's was the be all end all of pizza in the midwest. Some people were absolutely fanatical about it. I ate it but lumped it in somewhere better than domino's and worse than pizza hut.

When it came to Canada I was curious as to how it would be received. Now I know it all comes down to personal preference but I haven't met anyone that really likes it. Do we have different tastes then our wonderful American neighbours or do we simply have better/higher quality chain pizza options?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I grew up in the US Midwest, near Chicago, and it's strange: There are some of the most fantastic indie and small chain pizza places imaginable and then there are CHAINS like you would not believe. A strip mall in a depressed suburb (like Calumet City) will have some ghetto mobility store like Boost or Cricket, a check cashing store, dollar plus and guaranteed a Domino's. In cities like Gary the only extant businesses are Church's Chicken and Domino's (or Papa John's). Chain pizza is all a lot of people know- I'm not exaggerating. I actually find the pizza situation in Calgary better because if you ignore the 2-for-1 dross and garbage like Pizza 73 (Nova, Pizza Pizza etc in other parts of Canada) you actually will find a lot more choice and some decent family-run options instead of Dominos ad nauseum.

    1. Originally, and now back in NY. Went to school in Ohio for four years. Midwestern pizza is for the most part vile. People do like what they are used to, especially with pizza. Midwest pizza usually includes a (relatively) spicy tomato sauce. crust is an afterthought and cheese is not always a "traditional blend". But if that is what You start with , it is often Your preference. Papa John's started out trying to use "quality ingredients" but quickly succumbed to the quantity over quality" (imho).In NY , I am still surprised by the in-roads some chains have made here.

      1. I went to school in the midwest and if we were ordering pizza, it was Papa John's every time. Not because it was good pizza, but because we were poor college students and with PJ's, we could get some great student discounts, and for no charge, they'd make the crust "double thick". These days, a huge thick crust is the last thing I look for in a pizza, but when you're trying to stretch your pennies as far as possible, it's a bonus! With the free little cup of garlic butter, we could make free "breadsticks" with the giant crust.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Boston_Otter

          This. Most of my Papa John's consumption took place in college for all the reasons outlined by Boston_Otter. This was also before it became de rigueur to tack on $2.50+ as a "delivery charge" above and beyond tax and tip.

          When I still ate pizza (now gluten-free, so my options are limited), I didn't reach for PJ's as much (their coupons usually aren't as good as Domino's or Pizza Hut now that I'm not a student and also not trying to feed an army of poor college student friends), but I get nostalgic for the crusts with garlic butter and they are the only one of the three major chains to follow my instructions and make it how I like it (well-done bake, double cut).

          I do absolutely disagree with the comment above about Midwestern pizza being vile. There are plenty of lovely independent places around here with great pizza, but they tend to be a dine-in thing here. The majority of the Midwest (Chicago excluded) is not as population dense as you'll find on the East Coast and we don't have the food delivery culture that exists like in other, more pop. dense places. Growing up, the only food places that delivered were the big chain pizza places (and that's Domino's, Pizza Hut, and later Papa John's). Jimmy John's moved in and started delivering. But that's it for the most part. Chinese delivery is virtually non-existent, and it's a rare occurrence for any other kind of restaurant. And those independent pizza places that will deliver tend to have a very well-defined and far more limited delivery range than the chains. So if I want the convenience of someone delivering food to me while I sit in my pajamas, it's Domino's, Pizza Hut, or Papa John's and my money is going to the one offering the best coupons at the moment to help me mitigate the mandatory delivery charge now. If that be Papa John's, I'm getting Papa John's.

          1. re: amishangst

            I've been living in the midwest - Tulsa and Kansas for the past 20 years and I also disagree with midwest pizza being vile. Many independent places out there, especially in Tulsa. However Salina has 3 nice independents with the recent addition of a brewery that makes a brick oven pizza. That said, I was never a fan of Papa John's, it was a late comer to the areas I was in. Domino's, Pizza Hut, Godfather's, Big Cheese, Pizza Inn were more established. I tried them once, didn't care for the sauce at all.
            Why do chains continue to survive? Delivery hours and convenience for the most part. I'd happily pay twice as much for pizza, and sometime pay 3 to 4 times for a couple of local places. However, they are open limited days of the week and limited hours. I've certainly never considered Papa John's a dominate player in the pizza market where I've lived.

        2. We order Papa John's because they bring it to our house. No one has to put on pants. It is a hot food product that we can have when I would rather burn up my kitchen than cook in it.

          We found a good local place that delivers Monday-Friday, so we order a lot less Papa John's now.

          3 Replies
          1. re: sub_english

            just wondering, do you have a "designated pants wearer" to answer the door when the delivery person arrives?

            1. re: 51rich

              For our purposes, "pants" is defined as "clothes suitable for public." My husband generally answers the door in pajama pants.

            2. re: sub_english

              I once saw a "movie" that sounds like your pizza delivery experience. :)

            3. To me it's the best of the corporate pizza chains, which isn't saying much. At least it actually tastes like something, unlike dominos whose cheese especially tastes like nothing. Pizza Hut has flavor but i find them to be all the wrong ones. The crust reminds me of greasy crumbs pressed together and it's terribly oversauced with that acrid and off flavor red goo.

              I prefer smaller places, but even those are often terrible too. You know, the places where the grease just pools up on the slices and the whole thing is limp like a wet noodle.

              Anymore, I just order pizza to feed a lot of people cheaply or when we are very lazy and don't want to go anywhere or cook.

              1. Papa John's is the best of the delivery pizza places here. Plus they have deals, and I need 3 pizzas. I grew up in Buffalo, where there was a pizza place on every corner. Here in the 'burbs of central VA, we don't have a big choice - there are two local places within 4 or 5 miles, and all the chains.

                6 Replies
                1. re: jeanmarieok

                  There's no Ledos nearby? That makes me sad.

                  1. re: monkeyrotica

                    I think there is a Ledo's maybe 25 minutes away. Does Ledo's have good pizza??

                    1. re: jeanmarieok

                      Only the College Park original. The rest are chain crap.

                      1. re: JonParker

                        The College Park shop has gone WAY downhill since the move from Adelphi. Most of the chain shops can be hit or miss. Still, bad Ledos beats good Papa Johns any day.

                      2. re: jeanmarieok

                        Ledo's crust tastes like the Pillsbury canned pizza crust. While last time I went I enjoyed my onion pizza, I would not categorize Ledo's as pizza.

                        1. re: melpy

                          Yeah, definitely an acquired taste. Neither NY thin nor deep dish, and the crust skews biscuity/crackery. I used to hate the stuff in college, but that was because I ordered it plain. Now I either get the pepperoni or the deluxe with anchovies; the salty toppings offset the sweet sauce. Two squares of cold Ledos squashed together makes an awesome pizza sandwich.

                  2. Pizza is one of those things where people tend to prefer the style they grew up with be that the style from Papa Johns/NYC/Italy/Chicago.

                    That's not wholly true though, and you can get a sense of quality from how many converts a style gets. I know plenty of people who've learned to abandon their roots and like NYC/Italy/Chicago style pizza in adulthood. Not sure there are many adults from areas with strong pizza traditions that advocate for Papa Johns...

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: hyperbowler

                      Add Round Table/California to your list. I grew up with Round Table and it's decent for chain pizza (better than Pizza Hut (which is vile) or Dominos (which I'm not sure is actually made of human-grade food products), or Little Cesar (which I'm sure isn't fit for human consumption)). Papa John's isn't big out here (yet).

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        Our Round Tables are sit down places. Our Papa John's are carryout with (supposedly) superior ingredients. Papa Murphy's is better as far as chain carryout as far as I'm concerned.

                        1. re: bbqboy

                          Round Table does both sit-down and take-out/delivery.

                        2. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I'd suggest giving Dominos a try these days. It's nothing at all like the pizza they served even just a few years ago. Pretty good, for chain delivery.

                          1. re: Boston_Otter

                            I used to work at Dominos in the '90s and gave their new pies a try. Definitely an improvement and MUCH better than Papa John's (painfully sweet sauce) or Pizza Hut (crust like a sponge fried in butter).

                            1. re: monkeyrotica

                              Dominos used to be inedible, now it's far and away the best chain pizza.

                      2. You might as well ask why any fast food options succeed. They're simply a different category that fill a need based on price/convenience/familiarity. I live in Chicago, which is as big a pizza town as they come and we have excellent local options in every neighborhood. Despite that chain locations like Domino's, Pizza Hut and Papa John's also seem to do well. It's not an either/or proposition, they obviously have different customer bases.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: ferret

                          Not necessarily different customer bases. They may share customers, just at different times depending on the convenience factor.

                          1. re: Firegoat

                            While that's certainly a possibility, I think the Venn diagram has a very small overlap.

                          2. re: ferret

                            It's true - born and raised NYCer here, living in a city with the best pizza options in the US (old NY slices, coal oven pies, authentic Italian/Neapolitan DOC style, etc), and yes, I still occasionally order the $11 up-to-5 toppings large pizzas from Papa John's. Totally different set of toppings, none particularly "authentic", and good in its own low-class way.

                            1. re: janethepain

                              I feel the same way about Taco Bell. I know it's not super-most-autheticist regional locavore Mexican cuisine. It's not even very good. I get it because I'm hungry and I'm cheap.

                          3. Average US pizzeria density is about 20 per 100k population. In silicon valley it runs around 50% higher, due partly to delivery demand by office workers (who often work late, or are too tired to cook when they get home) and impromptu business meetings. (20 years ago, the silicon-valley town of Sunnyvale famously had the highest pizza delivery volume per capita in the US.)

                            I've studied some of this scene, and when PJ's arrived some years back it landed in a competitive pizzeria market (and in the center of the pack pricewise, which is to say, quite moderate). Local pizzeria range is diverse: low-end chains (D, LC, PH) to local-region chains (Amici's, Pizza My Heart, Blue Line) to several old-line independents, and even one of the VPN independents (Napoletana Pizzeria -- strict Naples rules and styles, certified by the trade group there). As Ruth mentioned, another local chain (Round Table, begun 1959 in Menlo Park) expanded greatly, becoming biggest West-Coast US pizza chain in the 1970s, and by maintaining certain modest quality standards, RT helped establish a new and now busy stratum of pizzeria chains, above the quality level of the Dominoes / PH / Little Caesar's class. Subject always to franchisees honoring the standard.

                            When PJ's arrived, the location I'm familiar with demonstrated a We-Try-Harder entrepreneurial spirit, and its quality or execution may be above the chain's average, I don't know. It uses a smallish electric conveyor oven, running the pizzas through in 4 minutes 30 or thereabouts. Expat New Yorkers tend to criticize PJ's (and all other local pizzerias), but most people, like me, find a lot of agreeable options in the crowded local pizzeria market, in which PJ's offers a mainstream US pizza at a competitive price, with frequent specials, and certainly quality above the Big Three low-end chains.

                            ALL of this, in other words, is influenced by both local competition, and the attitude of your PJ location's ownership and management.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: eatzalot

                              Interesting summation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

                              1. re: bbqboy

                                statistical genius. no discernible food tastes, just book smarts

                            2. We eat pizza really regularly and switch between 3 places- Me n Ed's (a small-ish chain mostly in central CA), Costco (I don't know why but my husband is in LOVE with Costco pizza), and a local place. The local place is the best pizza I've eaten, excluding gourmet-ish options at actual restaurants. We have Papa John's here but I don't know anyone who orders from there. It's usually Me n Ed's or Round Table... Or BLAH... Little Caesar's.

                              1. Having just come back from Akron-area Ohio and ordered a bunch of pies from some local pizzeria, I'd have to agree. The bread was SO thick, I actually ripped it into two layers with my fingers alone and basically ate it with half the thickness. I would have much preferred Papa John's, ugh.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: janethepain

                                  The weird thing is, northern Ohio tends to go for super thick crusts like that, but central Ohio pizza places usually serve cracker crusts. Maybe that's why Papa John's was preferred when I was in college -- unusually thick crust = more food than typical pizza!