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Susan Kang Sunderland

Slices of Success

Quan Nguyen started at Papa John’s-Kapiolani making pizza and today is president of the Hawaii operation, which was just named Best Franchise in the world

Pizza changed the course of Quan Nguyen’s life. No, this is not a pie-in-the sky fantasy but the real-life account of a Vietnamese immigrant who went from minimum-wage pizza maker to president and operating partner of Papa John’s Hawaii. The topping is having his operation named this year’s Franchise of the Year among 4,200 stores in 50 states and 35 countries.

What is his recipe for success?

Nguyen would tell you it’s not anything unusual or phenomenal. He simply does his job as best as he can, and fate takes care of the rest.

Yet it’s generally known that determination, leadership, and passion have a lot to do with advancement. Nguyen’s career track is as speedy as pizza delivery. And one must devour opportunity when it’s hot.

Immigrating to the United States with his family at age 5, Nguyen spent his youth in Texas and was set on a course to be a doctor when his affinity for the restaurant business kept calling.

On a six-month vacation in Honolulu, he worked part-time making pizza at the Kapiolani Papa John’s store. That was in the summer of 1999. Within a few months, he was offered an opportunity to become assistant manager, followed by promotion to general manager in 2000. A year later, he became area supervisor, overseeing four locations.

In 2005, the door was open for Nguyen to become vice president of Papa John’s Hawaii. He ascended to the presidency in 2013.

He met his wife Shari while working at the Kapiolani pizzeria.

“She was my boss,” Nguyen says with a smile. “When I later became her boss, she left for the banking business.”

The couple have two daughters, Kammi, 10, and Kamryn, 6. Yes, the kids love pizza.

The 42-year-old executive has no illusions about selling a competitive commodity like pizza. He knows it’s a popular product one can get in several ways, including fresh, frozen, home-cooked, thin crusted, deep pan, fire-oven baked, delivered, carry-out or catered.

But he touts the distinctions of Papa John’s fresh hand-tossed dough, homemade sauce featuring fresh tomatoes and natural ingredients with no fillers.

“We keep it simple,” he says. “Taking care of customers and having a consistently great product are the keys to success.”

As Papa John’s founder John Schnatter puts it, “The main thing is the main thing.”

Zounds. No secret sauce? No whiz-bang marketing wizardry to dazzle the bankers on Bishop Street? No aggressive tactics to convert a plate-lunch populace to pizza?

Nguyen just wants to eat away at market share. He wants his piece of the pie.

Based on double-digit sales growth in recent years, he seems right on course.

When Nguyen started at Papa John’s, there were four restaurants. Today, there are 13 locations on Oahu with 350 employees. Its first neighbor island store will open on Maui later this year, with Hilo opening in 2015.

“And there’s more to come,” Nguyen says. “On Oahu, we’re looking at military bases, malls, Ewa Beach and the North Shore.”

Zones currently served are Kailua, Kaneohe Marine Corps Base, Kapahulu, Kapiolani, Kapolei, Mapunapuna, Mililani, Nuuanu, Pearl City, Pearl Harbor-Hickam-Stadium, Wahiawa, Waipahu and Windward Mall. There also is a concession at Aloha Stadium.

Among the changes Nguyen instituted when he supervised operations was relocating managers to their own neighborhoods.

“We want them to work in their own backyards where they know the people and are visible to the community,” Nguyen says, underscoring the benefits of serving friends and families who are familiar.

His “real world” thinking has earned Papa John’s Hawaii accolades for customer satisfaction, joining Papa John’s International as the No. 1-rated national pizza chain in the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) for 12 of the past 14 years.

The pizza executive also boasts the merits of a franchise operation.

“Business failures are due to not having good business and operational plans,” he asserts. “Franchising gives a business owner a leg up with the operational footprint already created. One is able to translate a vision into actual practice.”

Papa John’s was the first national pizza chain to make online ordering available in 2002. Digital ordering on computers and smart phones has since skyrocketed, with Papa John’s surpassing the $2-billion online ordering mark faster than any other pizza company, according to online reference Pizza.com.

Americans eat 350 slices of pizza per second, according to industry statistics. That translates to sales of three billion pizzas each year. On any given day, more than 40 million Americans eat pizza.

Papa John’s International is the world’s third largest pizza delivery company (behind Pizza Hut and Dominos) with 2013 revenues of $1.4 billion.

That’s a lot of dough.

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