LIKE MOST OF F ITS STORES, the Papa John’s on Wells Street in Milwaukee is primarily a carryout and delivery operation. The lobby fits only four chairs. So when 30 people crowd in, as they do on a recent Thursday afternoon when Shaquille O’Neal shows up for an impromptu pizza party, the sleepy joint suddenly feels like a nightclub.
“Shaq! Sign my shirt!” screams a grown man in a blue polo.
“Sign mine, too!” echoes one of the store’s cooks.
Outside, people are pressing their noses against the plate-glass window as a man snaps a picture of his blond-headed son standing next to the 7'1" NBA Hall of Famer. But the dad’s hand is shaking so violently that the few photos he fires off turn out blurry.
“Why are you shaking?” says O’Neal. Then, “You guys want pizza?”
Lunch is on O’Neal today. His visit is tied to his new role as a Papa John’s brand ambassador, but the relationship runs deeper than the paid spokesman positions he’s held with Buick, Gold Bond, Icy Hot, and dozens of other companies. As of earlier this year, O’Neal is also a Papa John’s franchisee and one of 10 executives serving on the company’s board of directors. That gives him an honest stake in the brand. And in turn, Papa John’s gets a genuine—and, equally important, symbolic—turn away from its past two nightmarish years.