Papa John’s Sunil Singh is the Indian community’s “Pizza King”: An Indian-American success story

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Sunil Singh at his Papa John’s franchise in Maryland. PHOTO: Sunil Singh

Sixty two-year old Sunil Singh’s story is not borne out of a reel script – it is a real story filled with hard work, and determination. In 1994, he began his life in the US with just $300, struggled with managing multiple menial jobs over the next few years, before finally acquiring a Papa John’s franchise in 2002.  He has not looked back since then. Now, he owns 38 Papa John’s franchises, and eight Tropical Smoothie Café franchises in more than five states in the US. He employs around 700 employees, and is currently worth multi-million dollars. It’s no wonder that he is fondly referred to as the “Pizza King.”

“The Indian community calls me the Pizza King because we provide free pizzas to community events and to those involved in community service and volunteer activities. We give free pizzas to people involved in helping senior citizens and kids, and also to the police and the fire brigade. We provide pizzas at a huge discounted price to over 150 public schools, churches, temples, and mosques in the Washington DC metro area,” said Singh in an interview with News India Times, at his residence in Great Falls, Virginia, on March 11th 2022.

Singh is a familiar face in the Indian-American community due to his active involvement in social work. He is the Chairman of the National Council of Asian Indian Associations (NCAIA), and previously served as National President of the Rajput Association of North Americans (RANA). Indian Ambassador to the US, Taranjit Sandhu, visited his house, on February 11th, for a welcome party where around 150 people from the Indian American community gathered to greet him.

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“We planned to have a welcome reception on April 4th 2020 for Ambassador Sandhu after he assumed his new role at the Indian Embassy. But, we canceled that event due to COVID. Since then, we planned three other times and again we had to cancel those for various other reasons. Finally, I met him on January 26th during Republic Day celebrations and invited him to come to my house, and he accepted my invitation,” said Singh.

According to Singh, he is always eager to support India, and Indian Americans. He was part of the coordination team when PM Modi first visited the US in 2014, and has since been involved in planning his subsequent trips to the US. During the second wave of COVID, in 2021, through his organizations in the US, he sent oxygen concentrators, ventilators, and other relief materials in collaboration with the Art of Living Foundation, which took care of local distribution in India.

“In addition to the relief efforts in India, we have also rented a building in Chicago where a team of doctors are helping with COVID related assistance, and a legal team helping with immigration related issues, free of cost. During COVID, every month, we organized two virtual programs on important issues for the benefit of the Indian-American community as well,” added Singh.

Singh studied Engineering in India and his Green Card was sponsored by his sister-in-law. Upon landing in the US, and after failing to get a job, he got his first job in a fast food restaurant, Roy Rogers in Reston, VA, where he cooked french fries and chicken.

“I didn’t want people to see me working in a restaurant, and that’s why I wanted to work in the kitchen. In addition to cooking, I even mopped and cleaned the store on a few occasions. People mostly fail because of their hesitation to perform menial tasks or unknown jobs. We need to give 100 per cent in whatever you do and that’s the invaluable lesson that I have learned in my journey,” Singh informed.

It was during the pre-GPS times, Singh got his first pizza delivery job at Pizza Hut in Herndon, VA. In that job, he struggled a lot to locate addresses using maps and was late for deliveries most of the time. Later, when he worked for Dominos he even got fired for using a customer’s personal phone once. “We didn’t have mobile phones then. I used to deliver pizzas for Dominos during the day, and worked at 7-Eleven in evenings. Once I got delayed for the evening job as I was delivering pizzas. I used a customer’s phone to update my 7-Eleven store manager, an Indian, that I’ll be late to work that day. Since I spoke in Hindi, the customer thought I used it for personal use and complained to my Dominos manager. Even though I explained the situation, I was fired from the Dominos job immediately,” he said.

Sunil Singh greeting PM Modi in New York in 2014. PHOTO: Sunil Singh

In 1999, Singh was 39-years old when he obtained a Masters in Computer Information Systems, in addition to doing a course in Oracle. After the course, he got a software job but was downsized in six months due to the collapse of dotcom job market. He soon understood that there is no job guarantee and decided to start his own business venture. Since he had experience in the pizza world, he planned to buy a Papa John’s franchise and thought if he made $10k a month it would be enough to support his family expenses. But, Papa John’s told him that he needed $225k to qualify for the franchise. Not having that kind of financial resources and determined to get a franchise at the same time, he started delivering pizzas 7-days a week and saved $200k over the next three years, which led him to his first Papa John’s franchise purchase in 2002.

Since then, he has bought and sold a number of pizza franchises in Washington DC, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. In June 2021, Singh and his partners purchased a Hilton Garden Inn in Manassas, VA. He also owns around 120 houses including town houses, single family houses, condos, and 3 apartment buildings in MD. According to Singh, during COVID the pizza business was significant as people ordered more pizzas due to restaurant closures. These profits led him to pay off his loans borrowed from banks. His mantra for having minimum loans – don’t take loans in the first place but if you do plan on paying it off as quickly as possible.

His advice for people who want to start a business: “You have to be ready to perform any job. There will be ups and downs in business. There were days I didn’t have money in my bank account and cut salary checks to my employees. But, then I worked hard to pay them. In 2005, I got dressed up in a suit and was ready to go to a party. Before heading to the party, I stopped by the store and found they were struggling with too many pizza delivery orders. It was also raining very hard. To help the employees, I started delivering pizzas in my suit, and eventually I ended up not going to the party as I made more deliveries,” he added.

In 2010, Singh’s sons Rahul Singh and Manish Singh took over his businesses, and Singh still continues to advise them on their family business. He said, “I sponsored many people to the US and some of them stayed in my house in the beginning. My kids benefited from their stay, as they interacted with them a lot every day. Those interactions have made a huge difference in them to understand our Indian roots and the need to respect our culture and language.”

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