Papa John’s First Chief Ingredient Officer Gives the Chain an Edge on the Competition

Sean Muldoon's office is in the kitchen

Sean Muldoon is the force behind the chain’s new 'clean label' initiative.
Photo: Clay Cook

The Super Bowl makes high demands of the players and coaches, as well as the sports and media executives tied to the big game. But there’s one man who, despite having nothing to do with sports, also has to be in top form on game day. He is Sean Muldoon, and he is the chief ingredient officer of Papa John’s which, since 2010, has been the official pizza sponsor of the NFL.

Muldoon is well aware that pizza deliveries spike 35 percent for the big game. (“This is the biggest day of the year for us,” he said.) But the main reason football is on Muldoon’s mind is because taste is the most decisive factor when it comes to ordering pizza, and taste is Muldoon’s responsibility.

"In 2016, we removed all artificial flavors and colors from our menu."
-Sean Muldoon, chief ingredient officer, Papa John's

Not only does every ingredient have to pass muster with Muldoon’s palate, he’s also the man behind Papa John’s indulgent menu innovations such as the Philly Cheesesteak Pizza and the Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza. Last year, Papa John’s put deep-dish pan pizza on the menu, which Muldoon calls “the single largest new product innovation the company’s had in 10 years.”

But Muldoon’s mission is as much about what’s taken out as what goes in: He’s the force behind the chain’s new “clean label” initiative. “In 2016, we removed all artificial flavors and colors from our menu,” he said. “That was a huge accomplishment.” For Muldoon, an even bigger feat might be overseeing all of these menu maneuvers without the benefit of a culinary background.

He has a degree in marketing, and since joining the company in 1999 has worked everywhere from operations to supply chain. “Even though my background is in business and marketing,” he said, “I’ve had to force myself to become more competent at the culinary skill set—I have to.” He does: Papa John’s slogan is “Better ingredients. Better pizza.” It probably helps that Muldoon’s office is located in the corporate kitchen.

Curriculum Vitae

  • Chief ingredient officer, Papa John’s, 2016-present
  • Vp, gm, preferred marketing solutions (Papa John’s subsidiary), 2007-2009: Ran day-to-day operations of printing, direct mail service, and promotional items business.
  • Vp, partnership marketing, Papa John’s, 2005-2007: Developed partnership marketing strategies and executed new campaigns and promotions.
  • B.A., marketing, University of Kentucky, 1988

What He Does

Muldoon is “a C-level person responsible for the farm to the fork,” he said. “We can’t find another chief ingredient officer in the world, so I think I’m the first.”

How He Got This Job

“I’ve had a lot of experience in the company over 18 years, including marketing, supply chain and R&D. At some point, they all came together.”

What’s on the To-do List?

“The challenge coming down the pike for us is sodium. We go into intense sessions in terms of how, if you remove sodium, what you replace it with and still maintain flavor.”

This story first appeared in the January 30, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.