Chain Reaction: Judging in Papa John's Specialty Pizza Contest


Note: I will add pictures to this later. I started writing and time slipped away from me. Right now I have to jump out the door and take the Serious Eats interns to Di Fara. It's Slice intern Aaron Mattis's last day, and it will be his farewell meal. The Mgmt.

First the pizzas were paraded before us so we could judge overall appearance. Adam Kuban

I don't know if you watch or read a lot of science fiction, but there's a term often used in the genre: planetside. It's when a space jockey lands his bird or an away team beams onto terra firma.

The entrance to Papa John's corporate test kitchen. (A tiny peek inside the kitchen appears after the jump.).

On Monday around 3 p.m., I checked into Spaceport LaGuardia for my journey to the Papa John's Universe — located in Louisville, Kentucky. I'm still not sure what to make of the experience. I had fun and learned a lot, yet the whole thing was so go-go-go and surreal (getting made-up for video purposes, seeing PJ HQ and the giant dough-making facility, and then standing in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs on the way to the airport) that I almost felt like I imagined the whole thing after touching down planetside on NYC soil 27 hours later.

You see, the folks at Papa John's had asked me to serve as judge in their "Specialty Pizza Challenge," wherein PJ customers were invited via Facebook to submit a specialty pizza creation using the 19 available toppings, their choice of sauce (original tomato, barbecue, or Parmesan Alfredo), and either thin crust or original crust.

From left: Judges Ted Allen ("Chopped"), Jude Thompson (president of Papa John's), and Rich Eisen (NFL Network) unveil the three finalists.

From more than 12,000 entries, Papa John's HQ narrowed it down to 10 semifinalists, partially based on the stories and names of the pizzas. I then joined four other judges (Tivia Effinger, manager of PJ's #50 and 14-year PJ veteran; Rich Eisen of the NFL Network; Ted Allen of the Food Network's Chopped; and Doug Bond, PJ's executive chef) to narrow the field to three finalists.

These semifinalists were anything but traditional, which seemed to please and surprise the folks at PJ's. The contest was fairly ingenious: It was equal parts a celebration and engagement of the customer and a bonanza for the chain's market research department.

If these 10 pies were truly representative of the entry field, we can assume that Americans have more than a passing interest in barbecue sauce pizza and are absolutely wild about jalapeños as a topping. Among the 10 were three pies with barbecue sauce, three using pineapple, and seven using jalapeños.

After taking a few bites of any given slice, we scored them based on appearance, aroma, flavor, and how well the toppings complemented one another.

Finalists were:


The Big Bonanza: original crust; barbecue sauce; bacon, beef, ham, jalapeños, onions, roma tomatoes.


The Workin' Fire: original crust; tomato sauce; Parmesan/Romano cheese, jalapeños, pepperoni, spicy Italian sausage.


Cheesy Chicken Cordon Bleu: original crust; spinach Alfredo sauce; three-cheese blend, grilled chicken, ham, onions, and extra cheese

As a judge, I had to keep an open mind and put away any notions of what "is" and "isn't" pizza. And the score sheets helped in this, as they didn't really give much wiggle room for subjective interpretations. But I did notice that barbecue sauce on a pizza wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be — it was actually kind of good — and I ended up giving fairly high marks to some of the 'cue pies on the bill.

I also thought I'd LOVE jalapeño as a topping, but what I found was that you really have to balance it with other assertive toppings so it doesn't overpower. It worked well on the Workin' Fire pizza, which was the closest thing to a traditional pizza on the card on Tuesday.

These three pies will now go on the Papa John's menu in August, and the finalists will get $1,000 to market their pizzas to the public. The highest-selling pie will become the overall winner, and its creator will get up to $10,000 of the sales and free Papa John's pizza for life — at one point, the marketing folks at PJs mentioned that this was a $24,000 value. I would actually love to see the math on that estimation, because I know that some folks reading this could put away $24,000 worth of pizza in just a few years.


Some Quick Behind-the-Scenes Pics from Papa John's


As part of the judging thing, I got to go behind the scenes a bit at Papa John's headquarters. Naturally, I thought it'd be cool to see the test kitchen. But what surprised me is that the test kitchen is not all that different from a working Papa John's location — except that it has three different models of conveyor-belt oven rather than just one (so they can test how pizzas cook in almost any given oven throughout the chain) and that it had a wall with convection ovens. Other than that, it was fairly unremarkable. There were no test tubes or tubes of gloop or anything unrecognizable. Which is actually reassuring.


Just outside the test kitchen and tasting area is a Papa John's store within the Papa John's headquarters. Whoa, meta. But not entirely surprising. I guess the one thing I really wanted to ask the folks there was whether they ever got tired of eating pizza for lunch. I mean, you know I love pizza — and so do you if you're reading Slice — but could you really eat it for lunch every day? I mean, I guess I could, but Girl Slice and my doctor would be on me in a second if they found out. And the only other options on the menu at the "campus restaurant" were the chicken sides.

The one thing, though, that I really wanted to get pictures of but couldn't was the dough-making facility. Turns out that the HQ has housed within it a production line that pumps out fresh balls of dough and ships them to 500 locations in the Louisville area. The machine was sort of amazing, like a huffing, puffing chocolate-factory robot squeezing out hunks of future pizzadom. The dough was mixed in a stories-high mixer, plopped out on a line, run through a spinning roller and then sent off on another conveyor belt into a three-story-high cooling room. The conveyor belt climbed the room in a spiral, chilling, until it reached the top and roller-coastered down to its human attendants, who packed it in dough trays and sent it on its way. I looked around on the webs to see if there were pictures or videos of the dough factory, but no dice.