Schnatter Launches PR Blitz To Put Papa John Departure in Better Light

Ex-CEO says the pizza franchise is "struggling without my leadership."

John Schnatter is not going quietly in his ongoing battle with the company that he founded and that booted him out as chief last year. Now the former CEO of Papa John’s Pizza, who remains its largest shareholder, has mounted a big publicity campaign in which he offers observations about the continued travails of the Louisville-based company and criticizes the way he was dumped for his use of a racist slur.

Over the last several days, Schnatter has provided an op-ed piece to the New York Post, been interviewed on Fox News, and provided comments to CNBC, among other moves, in an effort to put a friendlier spin on the circumstances of his departure from Papa John’s last year.

The company and Papa John’s franchisees “have struggled without my leadership and brand expertise,” Schnatter wrote in the Post. He criticized Papa John’s board, which recently added former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, as having “no one … [with] any experience in the pizza industry. They couldn’t possibly understand the steps necessary to correct this very complicated, struggling business as I had on a number of occasions in the past.”

Papa John’s circumstances are giving Schnatter plenty of grounds to criticize. Several weeks ago the chain fired Steve Ritchie, who had been Schnatter’s choice as CEO when Schnatter moved to the chairman’s job in late 2018 in the wake of criticism about his comments concerning the National Anthem controversy in the National Football League, of which Papa John’s was a major sponsor. Papa John’s named Rob Lynch, the former president of Arby’s, as Ritchie’s replacement.

Meanwhile, same-store sales growth for Papa John’s has remained negative as the company participates in a dog fight with industry leader Domino’s and No. 2 Pizza Hut. Among the issues they’re all dealing with is the increasing role of home delivery for fast-food and even fast-casual chains that are competing for customers with a pizza industry that traditionally dominated in home delivery.

In his PR campaign, Schnatter endorsed the dispatch of Ritchie—who ended up executing the break between Schnatter and Papa John’s last year—and praised Lynch. He “has proven to be an effective marketing leader in previous roles,” Schnatter wrote. “As the company’s largest shareholder,” with a 16.7-percent stake, “I’m hopeful that he can be successful at Papa John’s.”

But Schnatter is saying that one of Papa John’s biggest problems is product quality, a major concern for a brand whose slogan has been “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.”

“Papa John’s management may be emphasizing cost-cutting over product quality,” he wrote. “Even the pizzas don’t appear to be made the way that I made them just a few years ago.” Schnatter also said he’s been hearing from store managers, franchisees and employees that “morale is at an all-time low.”

Schnatter also has been using his visibility blitz to plead his case that his use of the “n-word” in a diversity-training exercise in the summer of 2018, when he was still chairman, “in fact” came in the context of remarks that expressed his “disdain for racism.” (In fact, it came in the context of his complaining that Col. Sanders used the slur and never faced public backslash.)

He has also compared his scenario with that of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who used the n-word during a radio interview in October while discussing historical discrimination toward darker-skinned Italian immigrants. Response to Cuomo’s remark, Schnatter complained, “is in stark contrast to the irrational overreaction and internal exploitation of my comments.”