When Tapan Vaidya went to study mathematics at university, he was following in the footsteps of his father, a Fulbright scholar who earned his PhD in the US. Like many students, he took on work at a restaurant to earn some extra cash.
It turned out that he found the fast-paced energy of the restaurant business more alluring than the formulas and equations he was studying, so he decided he would dedicate his career to the industry.
“That’s where my love of restaurants came from,” Tapan says. “This year is now my 35th in this industry. So many lessons learned, many mistakes made and many U-turns played out.”
After spending the 1990s working for Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Fuddruckers, Tapan joined the Jawad Business Group in Bahrain, where he was responsible for many quick service and casual dining brands in the company’s portfolio, including Burger King, Dairy Queen, Chili’s and Outback Steakhouse.
While in that role, he led the rollout of US pizza giant Papa John’s in the Gulf Cooperation Council, including the UAE. After Jawad sold the chain to PJP Investments Group, Tapan was so confident in the product that he invested his own money into it and joined PJP.
“I knew the business inside out, which meant I knew the product was great, and I had the confidence in the product to be able to put my life savings into growing the business,” he recalls.
It’s really a war zone, if you like, within the quick serve restaurant segment. All these brands are fighting, absolutely fighting, to steal whatever market share they can get.
“I think the brand and the product was key.” GROWTH, GROWTH, GROWTH The first Papa John’s opened in the UAE in 2005 and the company now has 62 branches across the country, with ambitious plans for expansion.
“The plan is absolutely growth, growth, growth,” Tapan shares. “We want to grow like-for-like volumes, as well as volume through new restaurant openings. When we started as PJP, we had 44 restaurants in the UAE. We’ve opened 18 restaurants since and have eight under construction.
“And we are not going to stop there. We are obviously going to continue to grow and penetrate the market as much as possible going forward.” The goal is to have 100 restaurants open in the country by 2024, Tapan reveals, and 110 by 2025. And PJP is now expanding beyond the UAE too.
The company has signed a deal to enter Saudi Arabia from the second quarter of 2021 and, once again, it is aiming to open 100 restaurants there within a decade. And while there is plenty of appetite in the region for the Papa John’s product, Tapan points out that there is also an enormous amount of competition.
“It’s really a war zone, if you like, within the quick service restaurant segment,” he explains. “All these brands are fighting, absolutely fighting, to steal whatever market share they can get.”
Blind taste test
Papa John’s sets itself apart from the competition with a relentless focus on quality ingredients, Tapan stresses. “We believe it is the quality of the product that will win the day, ultimately. Papa John’s, right from the beginning, right from when it was started in 1984 in the US, has been all about better ingredients, better pizza. So we take all our ingredients very, very seriously.
“And our customers know that. In almost every blind taste test, customers have voted us as the best. They know that, for us, it’s more about generating interest from our non-customers to grow our business because our customers keep returning.”
One of Papa John’s main strengths is that its product is the same in every location, which means customers can always trust they are getting the quality they expect. The company has numerous processes to maintain this consistency.
“No matter which restaurant you go to, the ingredients are exactly the same. And when I say exact, I mean 100 per cent exact,” Tapan insists. The company employs a robust online training process to make sure that staff are consistent in how they prepare the food.
“Some employees are faster at slapping the dough and some employees may be slower at slapping it, but we make sure that the dough is always the right thickness, the right elasticity and the right diameter,” he says.
However, the organisation’s meticulous commitment to processes that work doesn’t mean there’s no room for innovation. Papa John’s UAE recently developed a vegan pizza that has been a huge hit and even won an award from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The company managed to grow last year, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Half of its restaurants in the UAE are inside shopping malls, which had to close during lockdown. Despite that, Tapan made the decision that no staff would be let go.
“We knew that once the pandemic ended, or at least once restrictions ended, we would have to go around looking for people to recruit and train,” he reflects.
“So we made that call and then stayed with it, and not a single job was lost in Papa John’s UAE due to COVID-19.” In fact, the company had to hire more people as it opened new restaurants, he confirms.
Tapan spends half an hour daily talking to every new staff member about the company’s mission and values, which is part of an inclusive culture he has fostered. He also urges all his employees to “focus on ROC, not on ROI”.
“ROC is return of customer,” he says. “We tell our teams to focus on every transaction, every order, every customer, and treat them with such care that the customer will always come back. Then return on investment will take care of itself.”
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