Papa John's recalibrates technology push to bolster delivery-centric future

International COO Jack Swaysland talks about global project launches and his latest thoughts on entering Australia’s competitive pizza scene.

Expect consumer-facing technology to be a significant piece of Papa John’s international business this year, looking to build on its delivery-powered performance despite the flurry of economic headwinds brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Tech will enable our people to be as good as they want to be and aspire to be in what we can deliver. Tech won’t be the end-all be-all; it’s certainly really important, but it’s about people,” international COO Jack Swaysland told QSR Media in an exclusive interview.

The London-based executive, who has been with Papa John’s since 2006, said they are in the final stages of recruiting a vice president of technology to head up the international business’ digital investments.

Papa John’s is no stranger to digitally adapting to how people eat, even claiming to be the first pizza chain in the United States to introduce online ordering in 2001. In November, it became part of a growing number of brands who are turning to artificial intelligence-powered voice assistants to tackle phone orders.

“Now, if we want, we can speak to [Amazon] Alexa [and] place an order like that. Clearly, AI will be a big thing,” he added.

Explorations in tech aside, Papa John’s delivery capabilities proved its weight for the brand. According to the chain’s latest quarterly report, comparable sales of its international business increased 20.7% in the three months ending September 27, 2020, a period of continued restrictions and local lockdowns in select markets.

Papa John's will release its fourth quarter and full year 2020 financial results on 25 February.

Swaysland recalled Papa John’s changing its international business operations “overnight” when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic: flying to other markets and going to local stores turned into offering support through a screen and video updates to share best practices. He specifically credited franchisees in South Korea and Turkey for thinking about contact-free delivery and the brand’s quality seal, respectively. He also admitted that some ideas did not work, such as their “take-and-bake” pizzas in Latin America.

It had also consolidated its international team in its existing Milton Keynes corporate office as part of a global reorganisation to accelerate long-term growth and innovation.

Two words came to his mind about 2020 for the brand: resilience and flexibility.

“We had a lot of dine-in restaurants [that] lost sales. Certain governments made markets close. A lot of markets operate under strict hourly curfews,” he described. “Franchisees were really the heroes in this and the team members have learned to adapt.”

More delivery units on the ground
In 2021, Swaysland expects delivery sales to continue to grow and more delivery units on the ground and through other points of distribution. He says he is open to looking at how else he can create new delivery channels for further customer ease.

"Without a doubt, being on aggregator channels has helped us. Some of our markets have seen huge uplifts by working closely with aggregators in their markets. As a brand, we chose to embrace the opportunity and it's worked out well so far. This pandemic has shown us globally the power of convenience and safety through delivery; there has been a paradigm shift."

Seeing delivery becoming a must-have for businesses, Swaysland concluded that aggregators are “here to stay” but believes consolidation is part of its future.

“Over a period of time, they will certainly consolidate,” he said. “Businesses need to make a choice whether to get on the aggregator train. You can get shared learning.”

Australia entry eyed, global launches teased
Papa John’s latest development pipeline includes approximately 1,380 restaurants, 1,200 of which are outside of North America. A majority of these stores are scheduled to open over the next six years.

Swaysland stressed that expansion remains a priority, citing Australia as of the markets he is keen on having a presence. Asia also remains a “very important” for the brand.

“It's fair to say competition is quite fierce, which always brings out the best in brands,” he said. “I think localization is key...I could see a way to Australia.”

Swaysland also teased global product launches and marketing campaigns for the year, expressing confidence in his leadership team. In the past years, the chain has opted for a community-first approach, being visible via CSR initiatives and sports sponsorships.

“We are very fortunate that we work with a group of franchisees who don't need lots and lots of persuasion. By and large people inherently know what's the right thing to do.”

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