The Slatest

Despite Public Fallout, Papa John May Still End Up Running Papa John’s

A Papa John's pizza with pepperoni seen in closeup.
Better ingredients at work.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On July 11, Noah Kirsch of Forbes wrote in an explosive post that John “Papa John” Schnatter had used the word n—-r on a professional conference call—a scoop that was confirmed by Schnatter, who soon resigned his position as Papa John’s chairman while the company removed him from its marketing materials.

As it turns out, Kirsch learned about the conference call fiasco while reporting a longer article about the problematic culture at Schnatter’s epnonymous company—an article that you can now read in full at Forbes’ site. The piece is laden with anecdotes about extremely inappropriate behavior by company executives—at one point, for example, Schnatter confirms on the record that a friend of his who was once co-CEO brought his mistress instead of his wife on a trip to represent the company at the Super Bowl. For news purposes, though, the most interesting takeaway from Kirsch’s reporting might be that Schnatter, despite recent PR-oriented announcements, may well end up still in charge of Papa John’s because of his stock holdings and what sounds like essentially a patronage relationship with its remaining executives. The company’s international president, Tim O’Hern, went to high school with Schnatter, and its CEO Steve Ritchie is a close Schnatter ally who “six former executives” described as having been underqualified for his job when Schnatter installed him in it. Writes Kirsch:

Nearly everyone expects Papa John’s to move on without him. Except those closest to Schnatter. He is still on the board, owns nearly 30% of shares and has Ritchie, O’Hern and the rest in command. … Schnatter seems intent on retaining influence. He pays for his office space at Papa John’s headquarters, which began as a way to keep a private staff on site. The company is attempting to terminate the agreement, but Schnatter’s representatives say it has no grounds. And on July 12, the day after he resigned as chairman, Schnatter showed up to work as usual.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Schnatter has sent a confrontational letter to the Papa John’s board calling his resignation a “mistake” and arguing that he didn’t say the n-word in a bad way:

In Saturday’s letter to the board, Mr. Schnatter wrote, the telephone call that month with digital marketing agency Laundry Service was intended to prepare him for questions he might be asked by reporters. When asked during the call whether he is racist, he answered “no,” he said, according to the letter.

“I then said something on the order of, Colonel Sanders used the word ‘N,’ (I actually used the word), that I would never use that word, and Papa John’s doesn’t use that word,” he said in his letter.

I don’t know—in context, that still sounds like a stupid thing to do. Also:

He also said in his letter that the marketing agency suggested Papa John’s retain rapper Kanye West to appear with him in ads and that he resisted that suggestion because Mr. West uses the “N-word” in some songs.

There’s a dissertation on racial sociology to be written about how a white person ends up thinking it’s fine for him to use a hard-r n—-r in a work conversation but that it’s not okay for a black person to use the soft-r version in colloquial song lyrics. But that’s for someone else to unpack; I’m just a corporate pizza blogger.