Papa Johns’ New ‘Papa Bowls’ Aren’t What You Think

One particular element of this new Papa Johns offering caught us off guard.

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papa johns italian papa bowl
Photo: Dennis Lee

As we mentioned last week (with a little frustration), Papa Johns has released a new product called Papa Bowls, which feature all the toppings from its pizzas (sauce, veggies, meat), sans dough, baked in a tray. While the idea of this menu item sounded strange in theory, it’s another thing to order one for yourself and experience the Papa Bowl at close range.

What are Papa Johns’ new Papa Bowls?

There are three types of Papa Bowls, which a press release describes as the pizza chain’s “first-ever crustless innovation:

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  • Chicken Alfredo: Pizza sauce, Alfredo sauce, chicken, veggies, and cheese
  • Garden Veggie: Spinach, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and banana peppers, along with tomato sauce, three-cheese blend, and Italian seasoning 
  • Italian Meats Trio: Pizza sauce, Afredo sauce, pepperoni, sausage, meatballs, veggies, and Italian seasoning
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Scott Rodriguez, senior vice president of menu strategy and product innovation for Papa Johns, heralded the bowls in the press release. 

“Our signature crust continues to be a beloved favorite, but we know that sometimes customers crave something different,” said Rodriguez.We want them to know we are committed to delivering on all of those cravings through our menu.”

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The internet immediately met these Papa Bowls with disdain. After CNN tweeted about the release, Twitter lit up, and not in a positive way. Most people maligned the bowls.

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One Twitter user, @WritesCoco, pulled out all the stops and said, “This is just a TV dinner made of cardiac failure. We are all God’s children, but he has left us in a hot car with the windows rolled up and he’s been ‘picking up a pack of smokes’ for about six hours now.”

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My favorite response came from user @ParadiseDesuu, who described the Papa Bowls as “boneless pizza.”

Bowls have been a fast food “innovation” for a long time now, and pizza seems like a natural category for them to expand into. KFC’s got its long-running Famous Bowl, Subway has a Protein Bowl (basically a salad), and Portillo’s has a Beef Bowl (which is just like... beef and jus, plus sausage if you want it). There are plenty of bowls out there. I’ve got my opinions on them; unless you’re on a ketogenic diet, it’s hard not to feel like you’re being fed table scraps.

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I asked Papa Johns if I could try all three and the company kindly sent them over. Readers, I hate to break it to you, but in short, these things taste great.

veggie papa bowl
Photo: Dennis Lee
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Here’s what Papa Bowls taste like

My favorite was the Garden Veggie, since the vegetable toppings (fillings?) offset the natural richness of melted cheese. The banana peppers also cut through that richness with plenty of acidity to keep each bite feeling light.

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The Chicken Alfredo Papa Bowl was a tad heavy for my preferences. I initially disliked that richness; the pools of garlic butter were kind of unappealing. Yet despite that initial reluctance, I inexplicably kept coming back for more.

The Italian Meats Trio was a little bit overwhelming due to all that processed animal product, but since it’s fast food pizza, I knew I wasn’t going to experience lovingly crafted pepperoni. Each bowl contained just about a pound of food, confirmed via my kitchen scale.

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All three Papa Bowls demonstrate a major flaw in execution: The veggies weep a lot of water as they’re baked, so you have to drain each forkful of juice before you chow down. It’s not the worst thing, but I can see how many people would hate having to do this. On a pizza you don’t notice this happening as much, since you have dough to sop up the liquid for you.

My fiancée agreed that everything tasted pretty good, even though the format felt a bit strange. She noted that without any pizza crust to chew and swallow, which would normally slow you down to a more moderate eating pace, you could easily plow through one of these one-pound bowls in no time at all. We later discovered that Papa Johns’ website doesn’t contain nutritional facts for the bowls yet, so keto diet people can’t currently confirm a carb count.

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The problem with Papa Johns Papa Bowls

So, the food’s decent. Good, even. But there is one predominant problem with Papa Bowls, and interestingly enough, it has nothing to do with the food.

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The packaging for this product is concerningly excessive. Each Papa Bowl comes in a small pizza box, which is packed with napkins and plastic silverware, which comes in a plastic bag. Then the Papa Bowl itself comes in a paper tray, with a cardboard sleeve surrounding it.

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Once we were done with lunch, I looked at my countertop with dismay. God, that was a lot of stuff. I kept the plastic silverware for later. The napkins we used a few of; we saved the rest. But the boxes and the trays had to be disposed of, and knowing the way paper recycling works (grease can render pizza boxes unrecyclable), I felt like an order of Papa Bowls produced more waste than it needed to.

The problem is, I don’t see a better packaging solution right off the bat. You can’t handle a scorchingly hot Papa Bowl in just the tray—you need some way to handle it, hence the pizza box. As decent as the food tasted, the way I felt disposing of the boxes outweighed much of the joy I’d gotten from it. So while the Papa Bowls get a solid B+ for flavor, they get an F for the way they require the customer to make an immediate trip to the dumpster.

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