The story of sixty-two-year-old Sunil Singh wasn’t born out of a reel script – it’s a true story filled with hard work and determination. In 1994, he started life in the United States with just $300, struggled to manage several menial jobs over the next few years, before finally acquiring a Papa John’s franchise in 2002. He didn’t look in back ever since. Today, he owns 38 Papa John’s franchises and eight Tropical Smoothie Café franchises in more than five US states. It employs around 700 staff and is currently worth several million dollars. It’s no wonder he’s affectionately known as the “Pizza King.”
“The Indian community calls me the Pizza King because we provide free pizza to community events and those involved in community service and voluntary activities. We give free pizza to people involved in helping seniors and children, as well as police and firefighters. We provide pizza at a deeply discounted price to more than 150 public schools, churches, temples and mosques in the Washington D.C. metro area,” Singh said in an interview with News India Times, at his residence in Great Falls, Virginia on March 11.and 2022.
Singh is a familiar face in the Indian-American community due to his active involvement in social work. He is President of the National Council of Asian Indian Associations (NCAIA) and previously served as National President of the Rajput Association of North Americans (RANA). India’s Ambassador to the United States, Taranjit Sandhu, visited his home on February 11andfor a welcome party where about 150 people from the Native American community gathered to greet him.
“We had planned to hold a welcome reception on April 4and 2020 for Ambassador Sandhu after assuming his new duties at the Indian Embassy. But, we have canceled this event due to COVID. Since then we have planned three more times and again we had to cancel them for various other reasons. Finally, I met him on January 26and during the Republic Day celebrations and invited him to come to my house, and he accepted my invitation,” Singh said.
According to Singh, he is always keen to support India and Native Americans. He was part of the coordination team when Prime Minister Modi first visited the United States in 2014 and has since helped plan his subsequent trips to the United States. During the second wave of COVID, in 2021, through his organizations in the United States, he sent oxygen concentrators, ventilators and other relief materials in collaboration with the Art of Living Foundation, who took care of the local distribution in India.
“In addition to relief efforts in India, we have also rented a building in Chicago where a team of doctors are helping with COVID-related assistance, and a legal team is helping with immigration-related issues, free of charge. During COVID , every month, we held two virtual programs on important issues to also benefit the Indo-American community,” Singh added.
Singh studied engineering in India and his green card was sponsored by his sister-in-law. Upon arriving in the United States, and after failing to find a job, he got his first job at a fast food restaurant, Roy Rogers in Reston, Virginia, where he cooked fries and chicken.
“I didn’t want people to see me working in a restaurant, and that’s why I wanted to work in the kitchen. Besides cooking, I even mopped the floor and cleaned the store a few times. People fail mainly because of their reluctance to perform menial tasks or unfamiliar jobs. We have to give 100% in everything you do and that’s the invaluable lesson I’ve learned along my journey,” Singh said.
It was during the pre-GPS days that Singh got his first job delivering pizza at Pizza Hut in Herndon, Virginia. In this job, he struggled a lot to locate addresses using maps and was mostly late for deliveries. Later, when he worked for Dominos, he was even fired for once using a client’s home phone. “We didn’t have cell phones back then. I used to deliver pizza for Dominos during the day and work at 7-Eleven in the evening. Once I was delayed for evening work while delivering pizza. I used a customer’s phone to inform my Indian 7-Eleven store manager that I would be late for work that day. Since I was speaking in Hindi, the client thought I was using it for personal gain and complained to my Dominos manager. Even though I explained the situation, I was immediately fired from work at Dominos,” he said.
In 1999, Singh was 39 when he earned a master’s degree in computer information systems, in addition to taking a course on Oracle. After the course, he got a job in software but was cut back in six months due to the dotcom job market crash. He quickly realized there was no job guarantee and decided to start his own business. Since he had experience in the pizza business, he planned to buy a Papa John’s franchise and figured that if he made $10,000 a month it would be enough to support his family’s expenses. But, Papa John’s told him he needed $225,000 to qualify for the franchise. Lacking those kinds of financial resources and determined to get a franchise at the same time, he started delivering pizza 7 days a week and saved $200,000 over the next three years, which led him to its first Papa John’s franchise purchase in 2002.
Since then he has bought and sold a number of pizza franchises in Washington DC, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas. In June 2021, Singh and his partners purchased a Hilton Garden Inn in Manassas, Virginia. He also owns approximately 120 homes including townhouses, single family homes, condos and 3 apartment buildings in MD. According to Singh, during COVID, the pizza business was important as people ordered more pizzas due to restaurant closures. These profits led him to repay his loans from banks. His mantra for having minimum loans – don’t take loans in the first place, but if you plan to pay it back as soon as possible.
His advice to people who want to start a business: “You have to be ready to do any job. There will be ups and downs in business. There were days when I had no money in my bank account and cut off my employees’ paychecks. But then I worked hard to pay them. In 2005, I dressed up in costume and was ready to go to a party. Before heading to the party, I stopped by the store and saw that they had too many pizza delivery orders. It was also raining very hard. To help out the employees, I started delivering pizzas in my costume, and eventually ended up not going to the party as I made more deliveries,” he added.
In 2010, Singh’s sons Rahul Singh and Manish Singh took over his businesses, and Singh still continues to advise them on their family business. He said, “I sponsored many people in the United States and some of them stayed with me at first. My kids enjoyed their stay as they interacted a lot with them every day. These interactions have made a huge difference in them understanding our Indian roots and the need to respect our culture and language.