The passion of Papa John
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 08, 2021
After stepping down three years ago following the revelation that he’d uttered a racist slur on a corporate call, John Schnatter is wandering the wilderness of TikTok and conservative media, criticizing the company he founded even as he dreams of a return
Devin Leonard

It was a crucifixion,” says John Schnatter. “It was unethical. It was immoral. It was evil.” The founder of Papa John’s International Inc. is giving an emotional account of his split three years ago with the world’s third-largest pizza chain. Yes, Schnatter uttered a deplorable racial slur. Yes, he did so on a corporate conference call. But he says there’s so much more to the story.

Schnatter is pleading his case in a building he calls the Outhouse, a hangout spot beside the golf course on his estate near Louisville. He’s seated in a leather-bound rocking chair with a decorative animal fleece draped over the back. Sipping from a tall can of Liquid Death Mountain Water, he lists the forces he says played a role in his downfall: duplicitous Papa John’s executives, conniving ad agency reps, public- relations incompetents, the “progressive elite left.” The last one, he says, has long resented him for taking an operation begun in the broom closet of his father’s bar and transforming it into a global chain with more than 5,000 outlets. “The Papa John’s story totally debunks the left’s ideology,” he says. “This is America. You can live the American dream.”

Visible through the French doors behind the 59-year-old Schnatter is a tree-lined path leading to a stone bridge over a flowing brook to his mansion, which rises above a rock encircled pond. Lately he’s been teasing his half-million-plus followers on TikTok with glimpses of its opulent interior. Another clip features him strutting to his helicopter, to the sounds of the Notorious B.I.G.’s Big Poppa. The message: Sorry, haters. Papa John is still large, if not in charge.

It’s hard to think of many entrepreneurs who have personified a company as palpably as Schnatter. When their messy breakup began, he was Papa John’s chairman, chief executive officer, and largest shareholder, with 31% of the stock. He was also the company’s face, hawking chipotle-chicken-and-bacon pies and exchanging shtick with former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning in TV commercials.

Then Schnatter lost almost everything. In December 2017 he retired as CEO complaining that Papa John’s shareholders were being harmed by the NFL, which wasn’t punishing Black players and others protesting racism during the national anthem before games. Calling the situation “a debacle,” Schnatter said it should have been “nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.” Barely seven months later he also quit as chairman, after word leaked about the slur he’d used on the conference call. He’d been speaking with executives from Laundry Service, Papa John’s former ad agency, who’d been working with Schnatter on a strategy to counter the perception that he’s racist. “I wish I hadn’t said the word,” he says. He points out that he’d been attributing it to someone else during the call, and he accuses the ad agency people of craftily provoking him into doing so.

Jonathan Maze, editor-in-chief of the trade magazine Restaurant Business, says the crisis was comparable to the one Subway faced in 2015 when Jared Fogle, its chief spokesperson, pleaded guilty to receiving and distributing child pornography and to engaging in commercial sex with minors. Yet there was a difference. “When the Fogle thing came down, Subway could dismiss him and try to start fixing things,” Maze says. “With Schnatter, it’s not that easy.”

For Papa John’s, it took a corporate exorcism. It wasn’t simply a matter of commissioning Schnatter-free TV spots. The company, which declined to discuss its founder for this story, had to remove his face from its pizza boxes and scrub references to him from its website. The pictures of Schnatter on the walls of its Louisville headquarters had to go, too. Last September, Papa John’s announced it was relocating many corporate functions to Atlanta, physically distancing itself from its namesake.

All that remained was for Schnatter himself to exit the stage. But as far as he’s concerned, he’s still Papa John. Since 2019 he’s been making the rounds of cable shows and podcasts, many of them conservative outlets where he’s hailed as another casualty of cancel culture. “The woke mob doesn’t want you to have children’s books, as displayed by the cancellation of Dr. Seuss earlier this year,” said a host on the One America News Network (OANN), introducing Schnatter in March. “Now they’re apparently coming for your pizza.”

Schnatter is also seeking to clear his name. He says his exit was orchestrated by some of the company’s former officials, the NFL, and possibly even the Democratic National Committee. He’s eager to discuss a lawsuit he’s filed against Laundry Service, and he’s been pointing to a recording of the notorious conference call that he says exonerates him. Papa John’s and its former ad agency, naturally, disagree.

As the legal proceedings play out, Schnatter goes about his days, courting his fans’ approval. He’s cashed out over $500 million worth of stock in recent years, and now he’s out there, jetting in his Dassault Falcon between his homes in Kentucky, Florida, and Utah, posting highlights and motivational bromides on TikTok. He’s projecting his best life, except his best life is the one he no longer has—the one where he’s still running Papa John’s.

The morning after detailing his martyrdom, Schnatter wants to show off his mansion. Clad in a black T-shirt, jeans, and white Pumas, he strolls into the dining room. Leaning on a high-backed chair, he points out the room’s many wonders: the banquet table he says holds 34 people; the chandeliers that once hung in a London bank; the Raphaelinspired frescoes, in which angels, cherubs, and Biblical characters mingle. “That’s Moses getting circumcised,” he says.

He heads out the front door to the driveway, where a crew is adjusting the height of one of three fountains that blaze with fire at night. Schnatter wants it lowered to improve the sightline, but it’s proving tricky for the workers to satisfy his perfectionist tendencies. They’re tearing up their latest effort so they can try again. “It’s going to take them half a day,” he says. “I’ve laid enough stone and enough drywall in my day to know. But it’s got to be right.”

He says he wanted to avoid building “an ostentatious four-story house,” which is why much of his was built into a slope and can’t be seen from the road. He has his project manager walk me around to the side, where we enter a tunnel designed to look like a centuries-old Italian streetscape. It leads to the subterranean garage where Schnatter parks his three vintage Chevrolet Camaro Z28s. There Schnatter reappears and leads me through a door back into the house. We head to his gym, a cavernous room decorated with wall-to-wall memorabilia documenting his rise as a pizza mogul, and to an old-timey movie theater where he watches football. Then we climb the circular staircase up to the foyer, the centerpiece of which is a 16-foot tall sculpture of two eagles descending from the sky, mating. “It just speaks to me,” he says, gazing up at it. “I think it’s badass.”

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