The allure of a slice of pizza is irresistible, yes, but nobody makes pizza quite like Papa Johns. Since its foundation in the United States in 1984, the brand has grown globally. But at the heart of Papa Johns rapid expansion lies the company’s operations in UAE, KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), and Jordan, overseen by CEO Tapan Vaidya.
Vaidya comes from a family of educationists, where both his father and grandfather were Mathematicians. So he grew up believing he’d continue the tradition. But that’s not how we know him. So, what happened? As luck would have it, it was during his college days at St. Xavier’s College that he was knocking on doors trying to earn some extra cash when he stumbled upon a restaurant opening. And the rest is history.
Hop on as we explore Vaidya’s journey from a science grad to becoming CEO of one of the UAE’s most successful pizza establishments.
In Conversation With Tapan Vaidya, CEO of Papa Johns Pizza, UAE
In this episode of F&B Talks, we speak with Tapan Vaidya about his journey in making Papa Johns Pizza a successful food chain in the UAE. We’ll discuss how he started, ensured survival during COVID-19, and his transformation into a CEO. Stick around to read his leadership tips.
Early days: The Honey Trap
As mentioned earlier, Vaidya stumbled across the hospitality industry mainly because he wanted to clock some extra bucks. This was also when he came across the concept of a honey trap.
“In the restaurant, you know, food is the first honey trap but even bigger, a honey trap; I think it happened when I realized that when you take great care of a customer, the reward is almost instant in the form of a tip,” he says. And since then, the concept of tips became Vaidya’s driving force.
He started doing everything he could for the customers and excelled in it. More often than not, the customers left with at least a double-digit in tips.
Survival & Leadership During COVID-19
No one expected COVID-19, so understandably, no one knew how to deal with it. Over in Papa Johns Pizza UAE, half of their 47 outlets were shut down overnight. But Vaidya and his team rose to the occasion.
While many restaurants and companies let go of their staff to save costs, Vaidya retained his employees. And while they cut back the salaries at the peak of the pandemic, they made it up by the end of the year. Contrary to what you might expect, it turned out to be a good decision.
The reasoning was simple — once things went back to normal, people would start pouring in, and at the time, it’d become difficult to find trained staff.
Additionally, instead of fretting over the closed outlets, they shifted their trade area to the other nearby restaurants — ones that were not inside the malls.
“So obviously restaurants which had closed, we tried and shifted the trade area of those restaurants to other neighboring restaurants and to make sure that now a restaurant that would previously only drive X minutes to deliver a pizza will drive 5 minutes. But we had to manage and, you know, we, without really breaking [the] customer’s confidence in the brand, we managed to survive those 3-4 months,” he shared.
Being Fearless and Committed
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 Johns 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 exactly what the risks are. I mean, the risk is what, the investment will go, that’s the risk and, and so one was, I was prepared, pretty much prepared. I am just because I knew the business inside out having started the first restaurant in the GCC, when in 2004”
Idea Behind Meeting All New Employees
Since becoming a CEO, Vaidya has consciously developed a habit of meeting all the new joiners in his organization for half an hour, without fail. During that time, apart from the introductions, he takes them through the company’s mission, vision, and values. Additionally, he takes them through his own set of practices and expectations and makes them feel welcome.
This also means that as a leader, Vaidya has the privilege of choosing who to work and associate with and surrounding himself with smart people or people who challenge him rather than just having ‘yes people’ around.
“So there’s a quote I like very much, it’s better to have no man around you rather than have yes man around you. … When we are having a meeting, we want you to come prepared and contribute,” Vaidya says. He also goes on to say that they have excellent woman employees who are outstanding, committed, and the best at what they do.
His Idea of a Leader
Many assume that once you’re at the top or have become a leader, you have achieved all there is and that no more growth is required. But that is not the case!
According to Vaidya, two tools can help you continue and grow as a leader — listening and maintaining your discipline. You want to start by surrounding yourself with good people. It’s okay even if you’re not the most intelligent person in the room because the people you listen to are experts in their fields.
He advises that a leader must listen to their CFO, head of IT, head of marketing, and head of finance because they will all keep the money coming in. Listening will help them make crucial decisions, he adds.
“So I believe my leadership is a blend of democratic style, of autocratic style at times, and laissez-faire at times. … I would say I have been a democratic leader, maybe 90% of the time,” Vaidya says.
His Perspective on Aggregators
Food aggregators work as mediators between food establishments and customers and are an important part of the hospitality industry. But, while they are a boon to some, others consider them a bane.
Vaidya believes that restaurants should collaborate with food aggregators to safeguard their profit margins. However, they must negotiate as hard as possible because they will undoubtedly lose out if they are not on the platform.
Tapan Vaidya, currently the CEO of PJP Investments Group, is also the owner-operators of Papa Johns in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and is on the Caterer Middle East Power 50 List for 2020 and 2021. He also serves on the Advisory Board of DRG, which the Dubai Chamber of Commerce supports.
He has over 35 years of expertise in the Middle East and India and has been involved in constructing hundreds of restaurants for brands such as Papa Johns, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and many more. Tapan also established Talli Turmeric®, a well-recognized upscale casual dining chain serving genuine Indian cuisine in Mumbai, India.
His Personal Investment and the Risks
At age 23, Vaidya began working at The Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. Later, he was employed at the seven-star Al Bustan Palace Hotel. His next position was with Pizza Hut as Deputy Country Head in the category of branded restaurants.
A few years later, he was elevated to the position of Country Head for Taco Bell, and two years after, he moved up once more within the company to introduce Fuddruckers to the Omani market. Furthermore, his knowledge now spans a broad range, including the development and implementation of in-house initiatives for The Jawad Business Group.
However, the transition from working at Taj in Mumbai to obtaining 100% of Papa Johns has been quite taxing on both my personal and professional life, Vaidya told us. Vaidya moved from Jawad to the Levant end in 2019 to become the CEO of Papa John’s UAE, and might we add, he did so with his own money.
It goes without saying that this involves dangers, doubts, and peer pressure. But were any of them powerful enough to stop Vaidya? Actually, no!
“I knew exactly what the risks were. I mean, the risk is what, the investment will go, that’s the risk and, and so one was, I was prepared, pretty much prepared. I am just because I knew the business inside out having started the first restaurant in the GCC, when in 2004, Papa John’s, the first one was in 2004 and when I left Jawad, I think we had a total of 120 odd or 130 odd Papa Johns in the region that we had built. So I knew the business and I knew the team I was joining in UA because it was the same thing that worked for me. So I was confident,” Vaidya says.