5 Weird And Greasy Papa John's Stories

The story of Papa John's involves a bit of wackiness and a whole lot of lawsuits.
5 Weird And Greasy Papa John's Stories

The first time you learn there's a real Papa John behind Papa John's Pizza, it's magic. It's like learning there's a real overalls-wearing Trader Joe behind the till at Trader Joe's or an actual pigtailed Wendy making your burgers at Wendy's. Yes, John Schnatter is a real person, who's alive and … well, he's alive.

You see, Schnatter no longer plays a part in the company and now mostly just makes TikToks, but yeah, there really is a John. And when he's not squirting garlic dip out of various orifices, he's known for such stories as ... 

Papa John And The N-Word

The n-word in question here is "n-gredients." Because the slogan of Papa John's is "Better Ingredients. Better Pizza"—a slogan that annoyed rival chain Pizza Hut. "How can they state they have better pizza?" complained Pizza Hut. "How can they claim they have better ingredients? Better according to WHOM exactly? This is false advertising!"

Papa John's countered that such slogans can't be false advertising because they aren't facts. These sort of statements are what the law calls mere puffery. Heck, Pizza Hut itself claims to have "The Best Pizzas Under One Roof," which has to be at least as false as John's slogan, because Pizza Hut is definitely not the best, while Papa John's is at least better than some pizza. Various courts agreed with Papa John, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. And that was the most controversial incident involving language that Papa John ever found himself in. 

A Papa John's takeout and delivery location, located in Front Royal, Virginia.

Fatlouie/Wiki Commons

Hail Papa John, free speech champion?

Seriously, though, “Papa” John Schnatter famously lost control of his company after saying a racial slur on a conference call. If you heard this story already and assumed this was a random bit of racism, what's known in the business as a heated baking moment, you might be amused to learn that this wasn't just any conference call. This was a meeting specifically called to teach John racial sensitivity. The company had brought in a marketing company called Laundry Service to train John on how to clean up his act.

What act, you ask? Well, up to this point, John had crossed the line by saying, about football players protesting, "the NFL has hurt us"—“us” being NFL sponsor Papa John's. "And more importantly, by not resolving the current debacle to the player and owners' satisfaction, NFL leadership has hurt Papa John's shareholders." White supremacists took this to mean John was on their side, so it was time for damage control. 

At the PR training call half a year later, John said something to the tune of, "You think that's racist? Damn, I can tell you some stuff that's REAL racist if you like!" And then he said the specific slur that he claimed deceased KFC bigwig Harlan Sanders had been known to use (John's less racist than a colonel from 1930s Kentucky, he seemed to indicate as a point of pride). This, along with some graphic descriptions of lynchings (while again insisting he wasn't that racist, comparatively), proved so offensive that the PR company being paid to tell him what not to say cut ties with Papa John's. As did others right after, and John lost his position as chairman. 

Jeff Smith chair of papa john's pizza

Papa John's

In due course, he was replaced by one Papa Jeff. 

At the time, John declared that what he said was bad no matter the context. Since then, though, he's released the entire call's audio for people to suffer through, so that we know he didn't, like, say-say the word. And in describing his attempts to correct the narrative, he chose the worst phrasing possible, making it sound like he habitually says it every day: "We've had three goals for the last 20 months. To get rid of this N-word in my vocabulary and dictionary and everything else, because it's just not true. Figure out how they did this, and get on with my life."

Damn, John. See, that's how you end up expressing yourself when the PR companies that teach speech no longer take your calls. 

Some People Threw The Book At Him

In 2004, John was biking, when a biology textbook flew into him and knocked him over. Or rather, the book flew into his cycling partner, Curtis Tolson, and when he fell over, John fell too. John fractured two vertebrae—just falling forward off your bike can be dangerous, and he even figured he might have died but for the protection his helmet his offered. A third cyclist with them said she gave the book to the police, who had no immediate luck at tracking down whoever threw the book, or locating the book itself.

medical textbook


John's later career in pizza was his revenge against biology. 

Wait, hold on. Did we read that right? One biker said she gave the cops the book, and the cops said they couldn't find the book? That means either the police are super incompetent at storing evidence, or she lied, and there never was a book. Which makes sense because textbooks make for lousy missiles. They open in mid-air, messing with your planned trajectory, and they're far too valuable to throw away on strangers. You might as well attack bikers by throwing twenty-dollar bills in their faces.

Later events revealed that, huh, never mind. Someone really had thrown a textbook at them; this was not a cover story for some secret cyclist feud. Police tracked down the car whence the book came, charged two 18-year-olds inside with assault, and charged three other teens inside with lesser offenses. Thanks to Papa's mercy, they got off with just probation instead of the five years in prison prosecutors sought. 

a backpack and books money


Stay in school, kids. If you have any textbooks left. 

We still don't know, however, how that book ever went missing from police custody. We can only assume that corrupt cops turned from their usual hobby of selling seized cocaine to the far more lucrative gig of selling textbooks. And speaking of conspiracies ... 

Is Papa John Actually Just A Big Boy Statue Come To Life?

According to the official story of Papa John's (no longer available on the company website, now that they've discarded the man), the restaurant chain began with John baking from a broom closet in his father's tavern. He sold a beloved car to help his father pay off some debts, then used the leftover money to buy pizza-making equipment. Decades later, he tracked that 1971 Camaro down again and paid $250,000 to get it back

But we have another theory. Maybe John is not the son of a tavern keeper but is actually a Big Boy statue, brought to life using some foul magic. Our strongest evidence, of course is the physical resemblance between John Schnatter and the mascot for Big Boy restaurants:

Statue in front of Bob's Big Boy restaurant in Burbank, California Papa John Schnatter at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, 2013

Junkyardsparkle/Wiki CommonsRick Scoggins

We ourselves have trouble distinguishing John (left) from the statue on the right. 

"Papa John" definitely sounds like the sort of name a Big Boy might adopt to prove he's grown up. Note that Big Boy statues have sometimes been spotted in the wild, isolated in fields, as though capable of moving on their own accord. John commissioned a fresco for his headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, and he included his face in it, suggesting plaster is his natural element. John also contributed to Donald Trump's campaign, and Trump supporters later constructed a Big Boy-esque statue; perhaps this is a cult who's been turning statues to people for decades. 

"But Cracked," you say. "If a Big Boy statue came to life, it wouldn't become a pizza maker. It would become a sex offender, clearly. Just look at it." Now, we don't know about that, but all we can say is multiple women have indeed sued John for inappropriate conduct (groping, stalking, unspecified other stuff), resulting in multiple confidential settlements

When you dig into some people and companies, almost every story ends with a legal dispute and some murky settlement. For another example of that ... 

The $250 Million Spam Suit

Did you give a restaurant your number for deliveries, and then they texted you later with coupon codes? You may be entitled to compensation! Maybe. You'd have to ask a lawyer. In fact, if there's any chance of a lawsuit here, lawyers are probably knocking on your door this very moment. 

receiving phone

Nubelson Fernandes/Unsplash

Or are right now spamming you, via text

Yeah, we're not totally sure of the law here. According to the FCC, there isn't any law against most kinds of spam texts. There was a law passed back in 2003, cleverly titled the CAN-SPAM Act ("Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing"), but if anything, it made it easier to spam. Never trust a law that uses these clever acronyms—legal scholars call them backronyms because words are unfathomable fun for everyone. (This was from the same administration, after all, that gave us the USA PATRIOT Act.)

Back in 1991, though, we got the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, and plaintiffs said Papa John's broke this law by sending text after text, sometimes in the middle of the night, super annoyingly. Text messaging hadn't exactly been invented in 1991, so courts have gone back and forth about whether the law covers texts, but the lawyers behind this class-action lawsuit said Papa John had indeed broken the law, broken it so hard they owed $500 or $1,500 for every text they'd sent. That meant $250 million in total. 

1971 Chevrolet Camaro

GPS 56/Wiki Commons

That's like a THOUSAND overvalued 1971 Camaros. 

Papa John's didn't end up paying that much. But they did pay, otherwise we wouldn't have wasted so much of your time talking about this. The settlement they came up with reportedly totaled $16.5 million. Besides cash, it also included one free Papa John's pizza per plaintiff, making the settlement itself surely some kind of crime. 

The Vanished Bitcoin Fortune

Every May 22, cryptophiles celebrate Bitcoin Pizza day. It's the anniversary of the first-ever crypto transaction, the first time someone exchanged Bitcoin for physical goods. Back then, Laszlo Hanyecz was a programmer supporting the Bitcoin network, making him one of the few people in the world with a Bitcoin wallet of any value. Each Bitcoin was worth about 3 percent of a penny back then, so if you could even find someone willing to accept them, you needed thousands of Bitcoin to actually buy something. 

On May 22, 2010, Laszlo heaved 10,000 Bitcoin into his imaginary sack and exchanged them for two Papa John's pizzas.

Papa John's Pan Pizza

theimpulsivebuy/Wiki Commons

"It's not real money," he reasoned, "so I can't buy real pizza."

Over the years, many articles have looked back on this transaction and marveled at how expensive that pizza order effectively was, based on Bitcoin's current value. Those were million-dollar pizzas! $5 million pizzas! $45 million pizzas, $80 million pizzas. $470 million pizzas! $800 million pizzas! You might think all that would make Laszlo resent his choice to give the coins away, but he says he doesn't. Someone had to be the first to spend some Bitcoin on something, he reasons, or no one would else would ever have bought into the currency, and those 10,000 Bitcoin would have remained worthless.

Okay, that's Laszlo. But as for Papa John's, they could have held on to those Bitcoin all this time (they did not) and just let them grow in value. Perhaps John himself could have kept them. He's worth around a billion now, but another billion would be nice. Do you think the missed opportunity makes him bitter? Do you think he dreams about all the dozens of billions he'd now own if he'd asked for just a few more Bitcoin back then? If you yourself have ever fantasized about getting in on Bitcoin early—completely irrationally; it would have been a dumb choice based on what you knew then—you have to imagine he feels the same thing, only a million times more strongly. 

Papa John during WDRB interview


But then, does this look like the face of a bitter man?

Back during that interview we mentioned earlier, where John began insisting people know the *truth* about that conference call, he was indeed sore about various things. The interview went viral, with John apparently saying he'd eaten 40 full pizzas in a month (he just sampled 40 pizzas a month, he'd later clarify, so maybe 40 slices a month), and saying a "day of reckoning was coming." We all laughed.

That was November 2019. The world received a pretty big reckoning soon after that. Maybe Papa John knows more than we give him credit for.

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 


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