Papa John’s chairman creates new PR nightmare, allegedly uttered racial slur on conference call

John Schnatter had previously blamed his company's declining sales on black athletes protesting police brutality.

Papa John's founder and CEO John Schnatter
Papa John's founder and CEO John Schnatter in 2015. CREDIT: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

“Papa” John Schnatter is apparently at it again.  Though he stepped down from his position as CEO of the eponymous chain last year following his bizarre and unsuccessful attempt to pin declining sales of his product on NFL protests, he is still causing the company racial headaches — this time for reportedly using the “n-word” on a company conference call.

Ironically, the purpose of the call was to help Schnatter — who still chairs the company he founded, and is its largest shareholder — avoid future public relations nightmares.

According to Forbes, a source claims that during a conference call with marketing agency Laundry Service, Schnatter complained how unfair it was that his racism got so much attention last year, while the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (who died in 1980) did not.  “Colonel Sanders called blacks niggers,” Schnatter allegedly argued, yet did not face a similar public backlash. He also reflected on his upbringing in Indiana, recounting how “people used to drag African-Americans from trucks until they died,” according to people familiar with the call.


The anecdote was meant to contextualize his own racism, but multiple people on the call were understandably offended, and Laundry Service’s owner reportedly decided to end the company’s contract after becoming aware of the incident.

The Forbes report notes that Papa John’s did not dispute the account, but did say it “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.”

Schnatter’s last controversy also came over remarks on a conference call. Last fall, Bloomberg reported that the former CEO lashed out at protesting athletes, complaining, “The NFL has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction,’ adding that “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.” Neo-Nazis cheered the comments at the time, praising the chain as the “official pizza chain of the alt-right.”

Schnatter is a prominent conservative activist and donated to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Since his ouster as CEO and spokesman in January, he has reportedly tried to make inroads with the company he founded, hiring his own advertising agency to shoot and air commercials starring himself and forcing out at least one executive in the company who opposed Schnatter’s involvement with the company.