Papa John’s in Israel: A Fast-food Donald Trump Bound for Failure?

Will one of America's most famous pizzas become another American dream crushed on the sands of Tel Aviv?

The U.S. flag flies outside of a Papa John's International Inc. restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky.
Bloomberg

The list of American fast-food chains that tried to make it in Israel and failed is long and distinguished: Dunkin Donuts. Starbucks. Coffee Bean. Subway.

KFC. Merely two weeks ago, Burger King sprung off that list and opened shop in Israel yet again, its third attempt here. Living the American dream is nice, but it seems that this may not the best place to do it, if you’re a fast food chain, that is.

Yet they’re still trying. And if it’s going to work, why not with something that everyone likes, namely pizza? And thus Papa John’s - the pizza chain founded in 1984 that is now the world’s third largest, after Domino’s and Pizza Hut, with 4,700 branches - has launched its first outlet in Tel Aviv. 

Papa John’s is filling the storefront vacated by local pizza chain Tony Vespa on northern Dizengoff Street, at the corner of Yirmiyahu Street. There isn’t much room for sitting - just a few seats next to a small wooden bar. Most of the space is taken up by a large open kitchen, where a significant number of staff members are working pizza. In this regard, Papa John’s aspires to be like Domino’s, basing most of its business on takeout. It does not sell pizza by the slice; instead, it offers small and large pies, for 40 and 90 shekels, respectively ($10 and $22.50), as well as foods including wings, cheese sticks, fried chicken, salads and ice cream.

Papa John’s pizza.
Courtesy

Everything about the menu screams America in its excessive plenty. Lots of meat, lots of cheese. Those who love the genre are surely licking their lips like Homer Simpson by now; those who don’t, well, are probably pretty put off. Papa John’s isn’t trying to appeal to everyone. It knows where its heart is, even if that heart is going to need an urgent triple bypass sooner or later.

We tried three small pizzas - the meat pizza, with pepperoni and meatballs; the barbecue chicken, with grilled chicken, onion slices and smoked barbecue sauce; and the “vegetarian,” with onion, green pepper, tomato, mushroom and black olives. All three dishes arrived quickly and together.

Not that we expected something different, but the first thing that we noticed about the pizza was how thick it was. The dough is puffy and airy, but not greasy like Pizza Hut’s pizza. Taken with the generous quantity of toppings and sauce, and this is the farthest thing from the thin, elegant pizzas that are most common in Israel. Lifting a slice from the tray to your mouth, without it collapsing under its own weight, is an art form.

Like any other self-respecting American chain, Papa John’s comes complete with its own manifest, written out on the menu and declaring (yes, really) “Better ingredients. Better pizza.” To the chain’s credit, the ingredients were good and did not seem overly processed. All the pizzas were noticeably fresh; the cheese, the sauce and the vegetables had flavor; and even the meats lacked the aftertastes of processed meat. While the pizzas aren’t huge, they are heavy and generous enough to feel decent for the price.

The issue is the composition of the pizzas. With each bite, we increasingly felt that we were not actually eating pizza. The thick crust, the excessively sweet sauce like nothing we’d ever tasted, the cheese and all the toppings created the impression of a pastry with everything but the taste of pizza. I’ve had American interpretations of Italian classics before, but Papa John’s takes it much farther. It wasn’t bad - after all, there are few things better than freshly baked bread topped with cheese - but it was definitely a little weird, at least for the Israeli palate, even an Israeli palate that likes the genre.

Will Papa John’s become yet another American dream crushed on the sands of Tel Aviv? It’s too early to say. At the moment, it seems like a fast-food Donald Trump - very American, nervy, shocking, curious and controversial. It may not win the presidency, but it’ll make things interesting along the way.

Papa Johns, Dizengoff 267, Tel Aviv. Open Sun-Weds noon-2 a.m., Thurs-Fri noon-4 a.m., and Saturday noon-2 a.m.