Papa John’s International Inc.’s second largest franchisee started his career in the restaurant industry as a pizza delivery driver.
Nadeem Bajwa moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana from his native Pakistan in 1991 to attend college with a triple major in management, marketing and accounting. While going to school, he took a job as a delivery driver for Domino’s for a simple reason: It was easy.
“The delivery driver job was one of the easiest when going to school,” Bajwa said. “There wasn’t a lot of stress or pressures and other students were doing it. I heard they made good pay, and every day you just deliver pizzas and make decent tips.”
In 1994, Bajwa went to work at Papa John’s as a driver, was quickly promoted to general manager and then operating partner within 10 months — all while continuing his education. “I was busy, and then when I got promoted I was still finishing up school,” he said. “But when you have goals in mind, you just keep going. Sometimes anxiety isn’t such a bad thing.”
Bajwa said he loved the Papa John’s system and had been impressed with founder John Schnatter’s vision. “The business model was built by somebody who started the business from a broom closet — who mopped the floors like I did. That says a lot.”
However, Bajwa turned down his first opportunity to open his own Papa John’s unit in 1996, in Joliet, Illinois. “We went and saw the area. I talked to my family. And I just decided not to move forward,” Bajwa said. “I’m glad we did not. “
But the decision to forgo ownership a while longer turned out to be a mere speed bump on his way to operating 127 locations in seven states and Canada. On July 18, 2002, he signed a two-unit deal in 2001 and opened his first Papa John’s unit in East Liverpool, Ohio.
Bajwa didn’t waste time after that. The very next year he signed a deal to develop 10 locations in Pittsburgh. He bought three locations in 2004, and then opened 10 units in 2006 and 2007. In 2008 he bought a 27-unit Papa John’s operator in Michigan and Indiana — the very same operator for whom he used to work.
That was right before the recession, when prices for franchises were high. Things got worse after that. But while he acknowledged the year was rough, it didn’t keep his company from developing and building. He’s made several acquisitions since then.
“It’s always a good time to buy,” Bajwa said. “Papa John’s is a pretty hot brand. And I get calls from brokers. I got one and ended up buying stores in Jacksonville, Florida” in a 21-unit deal in 2010.
Bajwa has also taken advantage of the company’s incentives. In the aftermath of the latest recession, Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John’s has made moves to encourage operators to develop, such as breaks on franchise fees and royalties.
“I always say, I was lucky,” Bajwa said. “It’s not only about hard work. [It’s] about being in the right place at the right time.”
Advice to future franchisees
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These days, Bajwa is still building new units and looking to buy existing locations. Now 45, he has restaurants in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, New York, Florida and Michigan, as well as Ontario. In 2013, he entered into a partnership with former Pittsburgh Steelers great Jerome Bettis on three units in that city.
His advice for younger operators who are looking to grow their businesses: Do your homework. “You want to do some due diligence,” he said.
Yet it’s not just homework on the business; operators must believe in the brand they operate. “You have to really love what you do,” he said. “You have to really be excited about what you do.”
Bajwa also said that it’s important for franchisees to surround themselves with good people, something he said he did right from the start. “[Schnatter] said something — ‘you don’t have to be the smartest person to be successful. You just have to be smart enough to have the right people around,’” he recalled. “This is a people business. You have to have a good team. I have a very loyal team, and I’m very loyal to them.”
He also reminds aspiring operators that they can succeed by simply following the playbook their franchisor provides.
“No matter how big you get, the one thing you don’t want to step away from is the basic fundamentals, the business model,” Bajwa said. “The reason you have one store and it’s successful is because you have a model. You want to follow that model. That’s why you’re buying a franchise.”
Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected].
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