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Papa John tries to make a comeback, fails badly

Mike Florio

John Schnatter, a red-shirt-wearing assembly-line pizza mogul who made himself into the face of the fast-food chain he built, fell out of favor at his own corporation in the aftermath of last year’s Jerry Jones-instigated misadventures with the NFL. Now, Schnatter is trying to get back to the top of the ladder he built.

It’s not going well.

Via Noah Kirsch of Forbes.com, Schnatter had hired Laundry Service, a marketing firm owned by Casey Wasserman, to assist with the comeback effort. According to the report, a May conference call that addressed the manner in which Schnatter would distance himself from online racist groups, Schnatter complained that Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders used the “N” word in reference to African-Americans without scrutiny or consequence. While doing so, Schnatter himself used the “N” word, instead of merely saying, “The ‘N’ word.”) Schnatter also reportedly “reflected on his early life in Indiana, where, he said, people used to drag African-Americans from trucks until they died.”

Although Schnatter apparently was trying to show that he’s opposed to racism (gutsy move, John), multiple persons on the call found Schnatter’s remarks to be offensive. When Wasserman learned of the remarks, he terminated the relationship with Papa John’s.

Said Papa John’s in a statement to Forbes.com: “Papa John’s condemns racism and any insensitive language, no matter the situation or setting. . . . We take great pride in the diversity of the Papa John’s family, though diversity and inclusion is an area we will continue to strive to do better.”

The comparison to Colonel Sanders is nonsensical; the use of the “N” word (unfortunately) was rampant during the bulk of Sanders’ lifetime, which began in 1890 and ended in 1980. It was part of the cultural reality (unfortunately) of life in America, especially in the south. That doesn’t make it right, but it demonstrates why someone like Sanders could use the word during a specific time in history without facing any type of widespread reaction or punishment.

And even if Sanders did or didn’t experience consequences for his language, what does that have to do with John Schnatter? It’s weird and it’s bizarre and given that “Papa John” was trending on Twitter for much of the day, this latest unforced error becomes yet another indication that his company will continue to struggle.

Shares of Papa John’s International, Inc. are down 1.39 as of this posting, at 49.40. The 52-week high is 81.09, and the stock is approaching its 52-week low of 47.80.