There are three true constants in life: death, taxes, and a lovingly placed pepperoncini pepper inside every Papa John’s pizza box. Approximately 2-to-3 inches in length, with a mild spice level, the yellow-green pepperoncini is Papa John’s trademark pro-bono garnish. It is a throw-in that that has evolved into a fan favorite.
"It was like the world was ending.”
Cole Saladino/Thrillist
For the answers, you must head to a small town in Indiana. Before John Schnatter became the owner of an international pizza brand -- and started calling himself “Papa” for some reason -- he was washing dishes at Rocky’s Sub Pub in Jeffersonville.
“At Rocky’s, they always included a pepper with every pizza,” Muldoon said, “it was just a nice extra touch that their customers really appreciated, and John noticed.”
When Schnatter decided to start selling pizza out of his father’s pub after graduating from Ball St., he fine-tuned his business plan with the lessons learned during his summers of grunt-work. Serving pizzas with a pepper made the cut, obviously.
“John always acknowledged how much people loved that inclusion of the pepper, and since day one, he made sure there was a pepper in every one of his pizza boxes, too,” Muldoon said.
While the tradition originated in the depths of a Midwestern kitchen, the peppers that Papa John’s uses all come from Turkey. The country ranks third globally in pepper production, with about 1.8 million tons of peppers grown annually.
“It was actually a worldwide pepperoncini shortage, and it was our fault.”
Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Combining pizzas with pepperoncinis isn’t a widespread tradition outside of pizza shops in middle Indiana. And Papa John’s is really the only major chain to offer this combo. This is surprising, because as a flavor complement, the pepper just works, according to Muldoon.
“The pepper can add another level of heat and taste to the pizza, depending on how you use it, of course.”
And how you use it, exactly, is entirely up to you: There is no preferred or correct way to consume the pepperoncini. While some people alternate bites of the pepper with bites of their slice -- or eat the entire thing in one mildly spicy go -- Muldoon has a pro-tip… and considering he spends his entire life thinking about this stuff, it is literally a “pro” tip.
“There’s no rules here. But I like to bite off the tip of the pepper, then spread the juices in a circle around the pie,” Muldoon reveals.
Let’s call this method the “rip and drip.” And in Muldoon’s esteemed opinion, it gives the whole pizza a spicy, zesty tang.
“It might not be for everyone, but I enjoy that taste,” he said.
So, you can feel free to throw the pepper out, or bury it in your front yard and pray for a pepper tree, or eat it bite-by-bite, or cut it open and spray it all over your slices. And you can even ask your local provider for extra peppers (warning: they might overdo it). There is no right answer.
But one thing is decidedly certain: these peppers aren’t going anywhere.
“I think we learned our lesson when we tested taking them out of the box,” Muldoon said. “They’re here to stay.”
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