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Ronnie Killen’s Partnership With Embattled Pizza Chain Papa John’s Makes No Sense

The Pearland pitmaster is known for his top-quality meats —— why would he want them to top mediocre pies?

Kimberly Park

Later this month, Houstonians will be able to order Killen’s brisket on top of their Papa John’s pizza. But is that really a good idea?

Killen announced the partnership with Houston-area Papa John’s restaurants after “several months” of working with the chain to develop a pizza that would showcase the brisket via a press release on Wednesday. Called the Killen’s Barbecue Brisket Pizza, the pie also comes topped with bacon, mozzarella, pickles, and pickled onions. It doesn’t appear that Killen will be smoking the brisket himself, but instead searched for “the perfect company to cook the briskets exactly like we cook them at Killen’s Barbecue,” according to a press release.

The pairing of a local Houston institution and Papa John’s is curiously timed, and is likely a part of the flailing chain’s attempt to recover from a disastrous 2018. The partnership was announced about six months after Papa John’s founder John Schnatter was forced to resign after an audio recording of Schnatter using a racial slur was made public. Schnatter has also been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, including charges of stalking and groping a woman in 1999.

Further, Papa John’s employees allege that Schnatter fostered a “bro culture” inside the chain’s corporate office, in which female employees were asked about their bra size and whether they were menstruating. He also criticized NFL players protesting police brutality, claiming that these protests were hurting his business. Even though Schnatter stepped away from the company, he still reportedly maintains a 26% ownership stake in Papa John’s, which means that he stands to profit from every pizza sold by the chain, including the Killen’s brisket pie.

For Papa John’s, partnering with Killen makes perfect sense. Schnatter is still duking it out with Papa John’s investors over his role (and ownership stake) in the company, but one thing is abundantly clear: Papa John’s needs Killen’s a whole lot more than Killen’s needs Papa John’s. As this massive chain seeks to repair its reputation, local stars like Killen lend credibility to a company that has spent the last year battling a public relations crisis, contending with plummeting sales, and fighting off a hostile takeover from its problematic founder.

But for Killen, who spent years building one of Houston’s most prominent restaurant empires, teaming up with Papa John’s is a bizarre move. Why would one of the city’s most successful restaurateurs, a man who is widely respected for his attention to detail and quality of product, team up with a brand that’s been fending off attacks from all corners? Sure, there is money to be made for the chef, but he also faces the risk of the fall-out that could come with being associated with a man who has been credibly accused — and admitted to doing — a number of truly terrible things.

In the release announcing his partnership with Papa John’s, Killen shares some of his own reasoning, saying that he found common ground with the chain in their obsession with fresh ingredients. “The fact that Papa John’s prides itself on using the freshest ingredients, just as Killen’s does, sealed the deal to partner with them,” Killen said in a statement. Speaking to CultureMap, Killen said that he plans to “spot check” the quality of the pizzas that bear his name by “ordering the pizza from time to time.” He’s also flirting with the idea of starting his own local pizza chain, and perhaps this is the perfect testing ground for that concept.

When reached for comment, Killen tells Eater that his partnership is with Houston Pizza Ventures, a locally-based Papa John’s franchisee that has operated in the city for 25 years. “Killen’s Barbecue does not condone discrimination or harassment in any context, nor does the company we are working with, Papa John’s Houston,” he says. Of course, Papa John’s Houston, with whom Killen is working directly, is still affiliated with the broader Papa John’s chain, paying royalty fees to the company each year.

But Killen is putting his good name at risk by allowing Papa John’s to serve brisket with his name on it that he has no hand in making. It’s true that these types of licensing agreements are common in the restaurant industry, but they generally fail to meet the standards that diners might expect from high-profile chefs like Cat Cora and Wolfgang Puck. Cora isn’t lovingly making every sandwich at her airport kiosks scattered around the country, and Puck usually isn’t actually back there cooking during a meal catered by the company that bears his name. Consider the quality of those sad airport sandwiches and basic catered dinners — they are often terrible, and don’t exactly leave diners with the desire to hurry back and eat there again, or drop cash on one of the chef’s more high-end restaurants.

The exact same thing is likely to happen with Killen’s brisket, especially for diners who haven’t made the pilgrimage to Pearland to try it out at the restaurant. Regardless of how delicious that brisket might be, putting it on a Papa John’s pizza can only make those succulent, smoky slabs of meat worse.

Anyone who’s ever eaten a Papa John’s pizza can attest to its mediocrityone 2017 editorial described the chain’s pies as tasting like “salty upholstery,” and a number of publications’s rankings of pizza chains place it at or near the bottom of their list. Ronnie Killen is a smart businessman; there’s no denying that. But by teaming up with a company as embattled as Papa John’s, the chef and restaurateur takes the incredible risk of diluting his brand by letting arguably one of the country’s worst pizza chains serve brisket with his name on it that isn’t made to Killen’s standards.

For those who can’t resist the allure of brisket-topped pizza, the Killen’s Barbecue Brisket Pizza will be available from February 18 to March 31.

Update, 2/7 3:58 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Killen.

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