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The Uncanny Weirdness of Papa John Schnatter’s Downfall

On the limits of transcendent wealth and the hubris of a self-made entrepreneur turned disgraced pizza tycoon

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We hereby declare Tuesday, August 28, to be Pizza Day, a day to celebrate all the magic (and marinara) of one of earth’s greatest foods. To be completely honest, Pizza Day was originally meant to be timed to the release of the pizza-themed romantic comedy Little Italy, starring Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen; when we realized that Little Italy hits theaters this week only in Canada, we said, “Eh, let’s celebrate pizza in August anyway.” Who needs an excuse to honor pizza, right?


Nine months ago, national pizza chain Papa John’s released a dispiriting third-quarter earnings report that sent the company’s stock into a spiral, which decreased in value by more than 10 percent in a single morning. Company founder and then-CEO John Schnatter blamed the drop on the NFL’s inability to end player protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Papa John’s is an NFL sponsor.

“The NFL has hurt us,” Schnatter said on a conference call. “We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this.”

Schnatter’s comments only added controversy to the financial loss, and his company hired the marketing agency Laundry Service, whose other clients have included NBC Sports, Nike, Bud Light, Twitter, and T-Mobile, to help its founder avoid future gaffes. In May, Laundry Service put Schnatter through a role-playing exercise, asking him a hypothetical question on a conference call about how he’d deal with potential connections to racist online groups—not an unreasonable scenario, given that issues of race and racism are at the heart of the NFL police brutality protests and the backlash to them. In the course of his answer, Schnatter uttered the now-immortal statement: “Colonel Sanders called blacks niggers.”

Two months later, Forbes published the substance of the call, Schnatter admitted that he’d used the worst word that white Americans can use, and he then resigned as chairman.

Schnatter’s wealth, antipathy for protests against police brutality, and free use of the N-word in a professional situation make it easy to draw the conclusion that Schnatter is just another American blossoming at the intersection of unfettered capitalism and unabashed racism. After all, that intersection is a particularly prosperous one nowadays. On some level, there isn’t much more to this story than that.

But the part of Schnatter’s quote I can’t get out of my head isn’t the word that got him in trouble: It’s “Colonel Sanders.”

The pastor of the church I grew up in was fond of the phrase “transcendently wealthy.” The Bible is full of stories about rich folks, both flattering and not, so the topic of transcendent wealth came up a lot. Most of the time, “transcendently wealthy” was just a flowery way of saying “filthy stinkin’ rich,” but Schnatter’s public disgrace made me start to think about the phrase in a more literal sense.

Specifically, is it possible to transcend one’s humanity through wealth?

In November, just after Papa John’s stock swooned, Forbes estimated Schnatter’s wealth at a hair over $800 million, down from his personal high of more than $1 billion in March 2017, but still more money than the richest few hundred people you know put together. The personal wealth of the rentier class doesn’t work the same way the personal wealth of ordinary blue-collar or even white-collar people does. At no point could Schnatter have hopped in his Camaro, driven to the bank, and asked to withdraw $800 million the way you or I could empty our checking accounts if we were so inclined. Wealth in the hundreds of millions of dollars is tied up in stock, real estate, and other investment properties that serve to turn huge sums of money into even huger sums. When you get as rich as Schnatter, money stops being used the way it was designed to be.

Money is a social construct of convenience; cash is easier to transport and store than the equivalent in cattle or rice or cotton. Its fixed value and easy divisibility allows us to shop for whatever goods and services we need or want, and for people to devote their careers to pursuits that are not strictly necessary for base human survival but valuable enough for someone to pay for the service: like journalism, for instance, or pizza delivery.

Cash allows us to purchase that which we need to operate in society: food, shelter, transportation, clothing, communications. Assemble enough cash and you’ll want to put it in a bank; and spend it on nicer food, a bigger house, a cooler car; and put some away for retirement or a rainy day. That’s as far as most of us get—even people we think of as rich, like most pro athletes and entrepreneurs. Money is still just a thing to buy stuff with, even for people who have lots of it.

But at some point, after you’ve purchased an 18,000-square-foot house and put out a $250,000 reward to buy back the beloved car you had to sell when you were 22, your house and car and food and clothes can get only so nice. You run out of stuff to spend your money on, and money becomes its own end, like points on a scoreboard.

What would you do with $800 million, if you could just walk up to the bank and ask for a literal truckload of cash? Maybe you’d buy as nice a car as you could imagine. Plus clothes, jewelry, and art, and store them all in a house so big and ornate you’d get lost trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night. I’d have an Olympic-size ice rink in my basement, but perhaps you’d rather have indoor tennis courts or a movie theater—or for $800 million you could buy them all. You could take the trip you’ve always wanted to take to Monaco or Macau or outer space. You could climb K2, take up parasailing, or play the 100 best golf courses in the world.

But there’s a limit to how much stuff you’d actually want to buy and use, even with practically unlimited funds. Eventually, you’d run out of things to spend the money on and probably start giving it away—buying your parents a nicer house, paying off your friends’ student loans, and writing seven- or eight-figure checks to charity.

Ideally, that limit would be codified somewhere, and as a society we’d say, “If you have more money than you can ever spend, then this much goes to build schools and heal the sick.” But in the absence of such a limit, some people just try to amass as much money as they can, long beyond the point where it all becomes theoretical.

In 2012—and in direct reference to using tax money to heal the sick—Schnatter spoke out against the Affordable Care Act, claiming that the cost of insuring all of Papa John’s full-time employees would come out to about 14 cents per large pizza. Schnatter’s remarks generated a huge backlash from people who didn’t even stop to ask obvious questions like “Why should the CEO of a billion-dollar company pass the cost of legal compliance on to his consumers?” or “Does saving 14 cents per pizza come close to offsetting the money I’d save under the ACA as a working American?” Instead, they lined up to insist that health insurance for every full-time Papa John’s employee would be a steal at twice the price.

Some of the scoreboard rich, like Miami Marlins owner and hedge fund vampire Bruce Sherman, stay out of the spotlight, content to run up the score in the background while frontmen soak up public criticism. Others explore the boundaries of transcendent wealth—or of transcendence through wealth. In some cases, this means literal transcendence through Kurzweilian transhumanism or something similar. Others try to transcend the limitations of fame and influence placed upon ordinary humans—even very rich ones. Elon Musk, a man who recently plunged his own company into chaos by botching a joke about marijuana, attempts to portray himself as a visionary leader and thinker, as Steve Jobs once did. These people use their wealth to gain fame and influence while at the same time attempting to build a reputation that would justify amassing that much wealth in the first place.

Jobs was particularly successful in that respect—he became a metonym for Apple’s brand of hip bourgeois minimalism, dressed in his signature uniform of black mock turtleneck and Levi’s. Jobs’s clothing became part of his brand. Just like Colonel Sanders.

It’s telling that Schnatter chose Colonel Sanders as an example, and not other fast food tycoons, like Dave Thomas or Ray Kroc, or whoever the hell founded Pizza Hut or Domino’s. Colonel Sanders wore his signature white suit, bolo tie, Van Dyke, and glasses every day for 20 years, and was buried in his signature getup. Crucially, he’s the only founder who doubles as his company’s mascot—almost 40 years after his death, Colonel Sanders, not a Chihuahua or a clown, is still the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

It’s understandable that Schnatter would want to be so involved, since rather than buying or inheriting a business, he really did build the company from modest origins. When Schnatter was just out of college, his father, Robert Schnatter, invested in a failing bar, Mick’s Lounge, and Schnatter fils, who’d worked in pizza joints throughout high school and college, set up some used kitchen equipment in a converted broom closet and within months had his own booming pizza business, which eventually grew into a multibillion-dollar company.

The creation myths of most self-made millionaires are thick with elided details, and Schnatter’s is no different. A 2009 Associated Press article says Schnatter sold his beloved Camaro in 1983 for $2,800 and “the money helped save his father’s tavern in Jeffersonville, and he used the rest to start what would become the worldwide pizza business.” A 2013 Louisville Courier Journal profile of Schnatter fills in the rest of the story: The failing Mick’s Lounge was just one of a number of businesses owned by Robert Schnatter, who let John run the establishment at age 22. (John Schnatter described his upbringing as “upper-middle class.”) The sale of the Camaro funded only part of Schnatter’s nascent pizza empire—he needed a $3,500 bank loan, cosigned by a wealthy uncle, to buy out the Mick of Mick’s Lounge and start his pizza empire. Building Papa John’s, even with that leg up, was still an impressive feat of entrepreneurship, but the truth isn’t quite as romantic as the legend.

Schnatter’s evolution into Papa John started as savvy branding. I wouldn’t trust 22-year-old John Schnatter of Jeffersonville, Indiana, to make world-class pizza, but “Papa John’s Pizza” sounds authentic enough. By the time Schnatter’s company went public and turned into a national chain, he was old enough to become the “Papa” himself, and his red bowling shirt became his version of Jobs’s turtleneck or Sanders’s white suit.

With its red, white, and green branding and a grinning, dark-haired “Papa” at the helm, the Kentucky-based pizza conglomerate became a national casual-dining giant, purporting (accurately, in my limited experience) to serve “better pizza” than Domino’s, Pizza Hut, or Little Caesars. And Schnatter became synonymous with the company.

Papa John’s marketed heavily in the sports world, becoming the official pizza of the NFL and renaming the grand slam the “Papa Slam” in certain official MLB contexts. Schnatter himself donated $14 million to the University of Louisville (with the company paying another $6 million), paying for facilities upgrades and receiving the stadium’s naming rights in return. (Schnatter is an avid Louisville Cardinals fan.) Schnatter did TV commercials with Peyton Manning, who became a Papa John’s franchisee, and got access to the inner circles of American sports. Smart marketing, yes, but more than anything else a cool perk for a CEO running out of things to buy with his money.

“Papa” started out as a branding technique, a way to convey a friendly and (crucially for a pizza chain in the Louisville suburbs) Italian American patriarch manning the oven. It came to mean something closer to “Il Papa,” the Pope, both leader and figurehead.

When a corporate officer resigns in disgrace, the company usually moves on, particularly if that officer is a traditional suit-wearing CEO. But not if the CEO wears a bowling shirt or a turtleneck, not if he’s a self-appointed visionary who is both man and mascot. At some point, Schnatter became Papa John Schnatter, and being the company gave him things that merely owning the company did not. Extricating the man from the company has not proved easy. Papa John’s released a treacly minute-long apology ad, backed by tinkling piano and some traffic-like noise, thanking customers for voicing their dissatisfaction.

Meanwhile, Schnatter has taken to a website called SavePapaJohns.com, which features a photo of Il Papa smiling into the camera, arms folded across his chest, confident as ever. Only he’s traded in his trademark red bowling shirt for a black point-collar dress shirt, swapping his cloak of office for more subdued civilian clothing.

Schnatter’s new website is essentially a blog. “The Board wants to silence me. So this is my website, and my way to talk to you,” the homepage reads in red lettering. SavePapaJohns.com features links to news coverage, press releases, and copies of court filings in Schnatter’s battle to regain control of the company he founded. It resembles any one of dozens of websites devoted to the cause of keeping Fox from canceling Firefly, and will likely be no more successful.

From down here in the petit bourgeoisie, Schnatter’s website looks undignified, and more than a little desperate. Schnatter did something a white American in public life can never, ever do—use a racial epithet within earshot of a microphone—and his company and the public at large merely want him to go away and never be heard from again, with probably less than a billion dollars but definitely more money than he can ever spend. Schnatter’s punishment is to live exactly the life I’d want to live, if I were to win the Powerball tomorrow.