Thursday, July 12, 2018

LIVE TO EAT: My friend Jeff Mease on Papa John, independent local business values, and the ideology of the cancer cell.

Strictly speaking, Jeff Mease isn't a hometown boy made good. He came to Bloomington, Indiana from Ohio to attend Indiana University, never left, and the rest is history.

Jeff and I were aware of each other for a long time, and chatted here and there, but it was only when he was a director on the Brewers of Indiana Guild that we had time to form a closer acquaintance. I have deep respect for what he's accomplished in Bloomington.

One World Enterprises is the umbrella for the local businesses pictured above, and to my way of thinking, Jeff and the folks who work for him are a wonderful, living example of independent small business success.

Today on Facebook, Jeff commented about the "Papa John" Schnatter situation. To me, it's an important and insightful riff, so with the author's permission ...


Back in the early 90's I was upgrading some pizza dough equipment. There weren't many companies that produced the sort of mixers that make hundreds of pounds of pizza dough at a time. 

As it happened, the salesman that I ended up dealing with was an expert in the field, had spent his career in baking equipment sales and had sold the same sort of dough equipment I was looking for to Papa John's, which John Schnatter had started in Southern Indiana a couple years after I'd started Pizza Express in Bloomington. 

Having jumped into franchising early on, Papa John's was already a large and fast growing company. My curiosity about Papa John's meteoric growth was piqued during my conversations with the salesman, and near the end of a series of meetings I had the chance to ask the question I'd been forming.

"Bob," I said, "You've visited my company in Bloomington, met most of my key people and have gotten to know me a bit, tell me, what are the key differences you see between me, running this small and successful restaurant company and John Schnatter?"

"Oh sure," was his answer. "John Schnatter is ruthless. There's nobody in that company that was there at the beginning. I doubt there's anyone at corporate who's been there more than a few years." Bob's words from nearly two decades ago have always stuck with me.

Obviously, there are lots of customers who like what the papa does. But here in Bloomington, I've watched those franchises change hands numerous times. Their store management positions are a revolving door and there is no culture that I can sense, just branding, pressure and dollars, as is typical of the genre. 

Contrast that to Pizza X in Bloomington -- Papa John's most direct competitor. Our people are paid well and taken care of, and our managers hardly ever turn over. Each year at our manager awards dinner we're handing out service awards to managers and staff for 5,10, 15, 20 years of employment. One of our manager's is going on 30 years with the company. 

Pizza X employs over 100 people in Bloomington, 46 of whom are full time. We've had a first rate health insurance plan for our staff for many years (more than a decade before Obamacare) and it costs us less than 30 cents per pizza--WHAT AN INCREDIBLE VALUE. 

While none of us are getting rich, together as an organization we've created a great deal of customer value and through that a lot of good jobs, where good people can excel, and where all of us continue to learn about the value of service almost daily. 

I'm not trying to blow our own horn so much as to say this: There are different ways to do things, and the more conscious we ALL are about where we spend our money, the better world we'll create. Institutions and companies need to grow, we all need aspirations and inspiration, but do some things get too big too fast? Cancers and explosions come to mind. 

Visiting a friend in Freiburg, Germany a few years ago, I spent a beautiful fall afternoon at a farmers market that happened every day of the year but one, just as it has since 1514. At the center of the market was a cathedral that took 300 years to build.

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