San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Papa John’s expanding pizza empire

Standing shoulder to shoulder with her fellow Papa John’s Pizza employees, Katherine Gamboa waited expectantly for the man of the hour. El Padre, Papa John Schnatter.

The founder of the U.S. pizza chain, Schnatter is a man who makes a point of visiting his pizza franchises across the globe. Schnatter and an entourage of corporate officials penned in a visit to the sparkling clean and modern store in Heredia, north of San José, on Monday afternoon. Currently the third largest pizza chain in the world behind Pizza Hut and Dominos, Papa John’s recently became the first pizza company to reach $2 billion in online sales, due largely in part to its website’s availability in Spanish, according to, an online industry publication.

His visit to Costa Rica is part of a larger tour of his pizza operations in Central and South America. Eleven years ago, Costa Rica became one of the first countries outside of the United States to open a Papa John’s restaurant. With 15 stores today, Costa Rica is now the flagship of a pizza empire that is expanding throughout the region.

Gamboa said she has worked for the U.S. pizza chain for 10 years. She described the franchise’s founder as a man with a vision.

“I am really emotional and excited to meet him,” she said.

Darryl Carr, director of corporate communications and events for Papa John’s International, said Schnatter will visit five countries in the region – Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Brazil and Peru.

“We just opened our first store in Panama and we are looking into opening one in Brazil,” he said. “Costa Rica is our oldest continually operating market.”

Schnatter’s arrival to the small strip mall resembled the return of a conquering hero.

 A long line of dark colored SUVs rumbled into the parking lot. He emerged to raucous fanfare. Ticos dressed in costumes danced outside, while a small band serenaded the U.S. entrepreneur. Schnatter shook the hands of his Costa Rican employees, muttered praises in English, and paused for pictures with small children in the crowd. He appeared to have dark smudges of mascara on his cheeks from the hot Costa Rican sun.

After a brief spell in the kitchen, Schnatter addressed a crowd of journalists and employees. He said the pizza chain is currently in 32 countries worldwide, with 50 percent of stores located in the U.S. and 50 percent internationally. He said his focus is on expanding markets in China, the United Kingdom, Korea and Mexico.

“We’ve learned a lot from our time in Costa Rica,” he said. “If you do it the Papa John’s way, no matter where you are in the world it works.”

Despite the brevity of his visit – he left the same day he arrived – Schnatter said he was excited to be back in Costa Rica.

“It has been seven years since I’ve been here,” he said. “Not only is it more beautiful than I remember, the people are more beautiful too.”

Schnatter presented an array of awards, including a $5,000 prize to several Costa Rican employees who got second place in a pizza-making contest in Miami.

“They might have won but forgot to put one pepperoni on their pizza,” he said, with a chuckle.

Schnatter said he is getting ready to star in his first commercial in Spanish and will consider participating in a special promotion similar to the ones he is famous for in the U.S.

“I need to brush up on my Spanish,” he said smiling.

Mejores ingredientes, mejor pizza, Papa John’s.” 

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