Photo: Angela Weiss/ACMA2012/Getty Images for ACM
It’s almost frightening to consider how long John Schnatter, better known as Papa John, has been sabotaging his own pizza company. As scandal has continued to engulf the chain—perhaps peaking this week with its board adopting a ‘poison pill’ strategy to prevent Schnatter from ever regaining control of the business—it's become difficult to ignore the frequency over the past three decades since the founding of Papa John’s Pizza that Schnatter has terrorized his own brand with his spider-filled brain and his dumpster mouth.
The germ of this current insurrection came when Papa John made his now-famous claim that "Colonel Sanders called blacks [n-words]" in a conference call back in May with a marketing agency (which was brought in specifically to stop Schnatter from saying stupid stuff). That led to a windfall of lost endorsements, his disbarment from the University of Louisville's board of trustees, and his eventual resignation as chairman of Papa John's Pizza. (He would later say he was coerced into using those comments—something that disgraced dignitaries also claim when Sacha Baron Cohen dupes them into pointing a gun at a toddler.) Forbes later started sniffing around the story and unearthed a litany of sexual harassment allegations levied against Schnatter, which certainly makes it seem like Papa John won't be reprising his title anytime soon.But this is only one part of this story. Schnatter actually has a long history of idiocy, including a campaign against public health insurance, testy radio interviews, and the cuckoo-bananas argument that the NFL national anthem protests were hurting his stock prices. Here’s a brief history of John Schnatter’s no-good, very bad decisions and questionable business practices.
August 7, 2012: Papa John's Pizza was peacefully apolitical for years, before a fateful summer day in 2012. Schnatter comes out guns blazing at a shareholder meeting in the midst of the Obamacare debate, arguing that offering his employees bare-minimum health insurance would increase the price of pizzas across the country. "If Obamacare is in fact not repealed, we will find tactics to shallow out any Obamacare costs and core strategies to pass that cost onto consumers in order to protect our shareholders best interests," he said, nakedly attempting to summon up a consumerist rage over slightly more expensive pepperoni.
January 14, 2013: In a USA Today profile, which includes trite details of Schnatter's connections with Mitt Romney and Jim Nantz, he blames the media for misconstruing his anti-health care remarks. When pressed on his considerable wealth and his low level of empathy for his employees, he adds, "When you have built a $3 billion company out of a broom closet, I think you are entitled to a nice house."August 7, 2015: Papa John's settles out of court for $12.6 million with dozens of delivery drivers across six states who claim that the restaurant was refusing to reimburse their mileage expenses. According to the legal documents, those drivers would often get a flat $1 to $1.50 bonus per delivery, regardless of how far the destination was. (Meaning, a driver might be on a 20-minute trip and be provided no added cash for gas.)January 30, 2017: Schnatter, who made donations to the Trump campaign, makes his return to the political discourse after the election when he writes in his somehow-actually-real autobiography Papa: The Story of Papa John's Pizza, that business regulations were putting America on the path to Germany in 1867. "[Germany] was profoundly not a land of opportunity," he explained. "If you believed the wrong thing, the government attacked you. If you became successful, the government took your money. And if you dared go against the whims and will of society's rulers, the government beheaded you." This ended up being more salient than Schnatter realized at the time, though not in the way he expected.
April 27, 2017: Schnatter, who sponsors the University of Louisville's football stadium, gets in a heated exchange with Athletic Director Tom Jurich over the delineation of funds at a meeting, and resigns from the school's Athletic Association board a week later. When Jurich is asked whether Schnatter was forced out or quit under his own volition, he laughs and shakes his head.November 1, 2017: Papa John lays the blame of slumping pizza sales at the feet of the NFL and specifically, the national anthem protests started by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to draw attention to police brutality and racial inequality. "We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this," Schnatter said in a conference call. His comments are widely mocked, but do curry some favor from the far-right corner of the internet. Alt-right site The Daily Stormer posted a photo of a pizza with a swastika fashioned out of pepperonis with the caption, "Papa John's, pizza of the alt-right?" This forced the company to disavow any relationship with hate groups.December 21, 2017: Papa John steps down as Papa John's Pizza CEO as the company struggles to do damage control from the NFL fallout.July 13, 2018: News leaks out that Papa John used racial slurs during his remarks about Colonel Sanders while on the phone with a branding agency, and the sky starts falling almost immediately. The company starts by removing Schnatter's face and likeness from its ads; the University of Louisville takes the company's name off its stadium and business school; and a series of sports teams distance themselves from any associated pizza promotions. Schnatter subsequently resigns from his position as chairman, only seven months after leaving his post as CEO.
July 16, 2018: Papa John's HQ decides to cancel the "sublease agreement" on Schnatter's office, effectively giving him 90 days to vacate the premises. (Yes, Papa John's Pizza literally evicted Papa John.)July 17, 2018: Schnatter claims that the media railroaded him, and that his remarks about Colonel Sanders and the n-word were taken out of context, but remains in exile.July 19, 2018: Forbes publishes a lengthy cover story detailing the numerous accusations of sexual harassment in the Papa John's offices, and his path back to the public's good graces seems more impossible than ever. The same day this story drops, Wendy's announces that a planned potential merger with Papa John's Pizza is officially off the table.July 23, 2018: In a final, mocking blow from the Papa John's company infrastructure, the governing board institutes a "poison pill" policy designed specifically to make sure Schnatter nerver acquires a controlling stake in the business he founded in 1984. If Schnatter's group ever buys up enough ownership to move beyond the 30 percent they currently have, every other stakeholder will have the right to buy up stock at half the normal price, effectively sealing off any strong-arming from the former Papa John.The story of “Papa” John Schnatter, his pizza company, and his insistence on making poorly-thought-out remark after poorly-thought-out remark reads like the worst Aesop’s fable ever. But should Papa John’s (the brand) recover, hopefully we will no longer be forced to take a moral stance on its garlic butter sauce.