John Schnatter, founder and CEO of Papa John’s, owes someone a lot of free pizza – a whopping $16,000 worth, to be exact.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Schnatter, now 54, had always dreamed of opening his own pizza joint.
In high school, he worked at Rocky’s, a pizza and sub shop in his hometown of Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he first fell in love with making pizza. He got through college by working at a place called Greek’s Pizzeria and even considered dropping out of Ball State University to open a franchise, but his parents wouldn’t allow it.
“That’s when I got the idea,” he tells Business Insider. “I’d finish college and open my own restaurant. I had the recipes, I knew the equipment, I had a store layout. All I needed was a name.”
Schnatter says he lived six doors down from a marketing major in the LaFollette dorm at Ball State. “So I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, I need a name and a logo for this concept’ and he came back to me three days later with both. And I actually really liked the way the logo looked, and thought the name was pretty clever. So I said to him, ‘Listen, if this ever goes big, I will give you a pizza a week for the rest of your life.'”
A few years later, in 1984, Schnatter finally took a leap of faith.
He was running the bar he co-owned with his father in Jeffersonville at the time when he decided to turn the tavern’s broom closet into a pizza business. To make it happen, he sold his beloved Camaro Z28 for $2,800 to buy $1,600 worth of used restaurant equipment.
The broom-closet pizza shop eventually turned into what’s now the third-largest pizza chain in the world, with 4,700 restaurants around the globe and a market capitalization of $2.2 billion.
“Now that we’ve been in business for 32 years, I owe someone $16,000 worth of free pizza,” Schnatter says. “But he’s never come forward and I don’t know his name or how to find him. All I know is that he was from Chicago – and that I owe him good.”
Thanks to this mysterious man, Schnatter is widely referred to today as “Papa,” and the current Papa John’s logo has only been tweaked slightly from the one his dorm mate came up with almost 35 years ago.
“You really can’t make this stuff up,” Schnatter says. “It’s incredible.”