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The Sad, Strange Saga of "Papa John" Schnatter

"40 pizzas in the last 30 days," is just the latest twist

"Papa John" Schnatter is a broken man.

If his latest interview—in which he points cryptically to an unspecified future when "the record will be straight"—were not a clear enough sign of a shattered ego, the fact that he claims to have eaten 40 pizzas in the last 30 days drives the point home.

Apparently this dietary onslaught is part of an effort to find fault with the company's current direction. He says the quality has gone downhill, and the oil from those 40 pizzas seems to be seeping from his skin and hair as he delivers an unconvincing chuckle and instructs his fans to "stay tuned, a day of reckoning will come." Teary-eyed, he claims he wouldn't go back to his company now, but he hints at changes in management—the group that ousted him as CEO in 2017—that might change his mind, insisting that they are doing "everything wrong."

While it remains to be seen if his ominous predictions are based on evidence, his track record doesn't suggest a strong chance. For the most part, his history in the public eye can only suggest a broken man, stripped of his legacy by his own hubris, and sitting sadly atop an unconscionable mass of hoarded wealth.

john schnatter with the original camaro

When he founded Papa John's Pizza in 1984, John Schnatter was only 22 years old, and he had no help from anyone…except his father, whose tavern served as his sole source of customers. Still, he did take risks and make sacrifices to get himself started, selling his 1971 Camaro and using the funds to buy used pizza equipment. It's not clear why a 22-year-old bachelor fresh out of Ball State would choose to go by "Papa," but the most apparent possibilities are that he thought it made him sound Italian, or that it's a weird sex thing. What is clear is that, from that foundational moment with the Camaro, John Schnatter's life was forever changed—set on course for the tragedy it has since become.

Success consumed him. Within ten years, Papa John's Pizza had gone public and expanded to over 500 locations. America had never experienced pizza like this. The box proclaimed that it was made with "better ingredients," and while it's hard to imagine that slogan referring to the excessive sugar in its tomato sauce, or whatever they used to make the crust so difficult to eat, this pizza came with a pepperoncini and a little tub of garlic dipping sauce in every box. And a nation fell in love. That sauce was almost pure fat and could turn just about anything edible. It was the best, most unhealthy thing to dip your pizza into since ranch dressing. It became such an iconic part of the Papa John's experience that, last year, the company started selling it by the gallon.

Papa John's gallon of garlic sauce NY Magazine

Without those little tubs of garlic sauce, it's hard to imagine John Schnatter becoming as wildly successful as he did. At this point the franchise has more than 5,000 locations worldwide, and John Schnatter's personal wealth is estimated to be nearly a billion dollars. In 2009 he bought back the original 1971 Camaro for $250,000. That same year he was accused of sexual misconduct by a 24-year-old employee and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.

By all accounts, John Schnatter did whatever he wanted with the assurance that he could get away with it. You might think that a man who had built that kind of get-out-of-jail-free fortune on little tubs of garlic sauce would be humble about his success—that he would give thanks and want to give back to the society that had given him so much. You would be wrong. Perhaps it was his proximity to that word "billion"—the godlike quality we ascribe to that highest tier of affluence—that pushed him to become defensive of his wealth. Whatever the cause, Schnatter began inserting himself into politics in 2012, when he decried the injustice of the Affordable Care Act and the "11 to 14 cents per pizza" that it would add to his company's costs.

papa john ACA meme

The backlash seemingly did nothing to deter him from offering further political commentary. In October of 2017 he spoke out on the NFL players who were kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence. According to Schnatter, the league's inability to quash protests was the reason behind Papa John's poor sales figures, as they had an endorsement deal to be the "official pizza company" of the NFL. These comments soon brought about John Schnatter's ouster as CEO and the sad spiral that has followed.

colonel sanders Pictured: a relevant modern icon of tolerance Bettmann Archive

In July of 2018, in a conference call that was intended to coach Schnatter on how to avoid future controversy, he seemingly sought to minimize his own mistakes by referring to the historic practice of lynching-by-dragging and pointing out that "Colonel Sanders called blacks n*****s and Sanders never faced public outcry." Unsurprisingly, this didn't go over well. Schnatter stepped down from his position on the company's board the same day the story broke, was soon replaced as their spokesman, and has since been relegated to the sidelines, where he makes his bitter commentary about "a day of reckoning" and sells off his stake in the company he built, bit by bit.

John Schnatter is a broken man.

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