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Pizza isn't the only thing that's hot at Papa John's -- sales were up double digits last quarter and it hiked its dividend 12%. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Is Papa John's Pizza (NASDAQ:PZZA) the best pizzeria on the market?

It might not be the biggest in terms of stores and it might not generate the most revenues, but in turning out profits per pie, there isn't anyone that comes close to Papa John's.

OK, there's no real "profits per pie" metric (though maybe there should be), but the pizza shop consistently outperforms its bigger, better-financed competitors across a whole range of factors and that is turning it into something of a sleeper investment.

Pizza is one of America's favorite foods: Technomic's Pizza Consumer Trends Report finds that three-quarters of U.S. consumers eat pizza twice at least month, with the development of the fast-casual pizza concept being a notable if seemingly faddish outgrowth.

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Everyone wants into the pizza business now as connoisseurs want to take it gourmet.  Photo: Flickr via Alpha

Yet despite this offshoot, it's still the traditional corner pizzeria and the chain restaurants that are providing the bulk of the industry's sales.

Papa John's operates less than 4,500 stores worldwide, less than half the number of Domino's Pizza (NYSE:DPZ), which has more than 11,000 stores, and a fraction of the more than 13,500 stores run by Pizza Hut, the global chain run by Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM). Yet it makes those stores count.

Where a chain like Little Caesar's has a slightly larger footprint here in the U.S. and generated $800 million in revenues per store last year, Papa John's generates $837 million, more than Domino's ($762 million) and only slightly less than the No. 1 chain, Pizza Hut ($861 million).

Between Pizza Hut and Domino's, the two dominate the industry and accounted for some $20 billion in revenues between them last year, which dwarfs Papa John's $2.9 billion in revenues.

Even so, the upstart is able to hold its own when it comes to return business. Same store sales at Papa John's came in at 6% last quarter, below a resurgent Domino's, which saw comps rise 7.7% but well above Pizza Hut, which continues to see negative comparable sales.

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Data: Company quarterly SEC filings

And when it comes to customer satisfaction, none surpasses Papa John's, ranking right at the top alongside Pizza Hut and ahead of Little Caesar's and Domino's. In fact, the American Customer Satisfaction Index says Papa John's has long ranked as a consumer favorite, always ranking in the top three positions, and often as the best.

That's apparently paying off at the cash register. In its second quarter earnings report released in August, Papa John's said it was raising its guidance for the year and now was forecasting 4% to 6% growth in U.S. comps compared to its previous outlook of 2% to 4.5%. It's even rosier internationally, where the pizza shop forecasts 6% to 8% growth versus its former 5% to 7% growth.

On a consolidated basis, it's looking for revenues to expand by as much as 10%, well above the 7% growth it expected after the first quarter. It also looks to open several hundred new stores in 2014, with 80% of them in international markets, which is seen by the restaurant industry generally as the biggest opportunity for growth.

While there are bigger pizza shops generating more money than Papa John's, it seems that where it matters most -- the customer experience -- it's got the better pie.

 
 

Follow Rich Duprey's coverage of all the restaurant industry's most important news and developments. He has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Papa John's International. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.