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Papa John — pizza man or overlord?

| Thursday, November 9, 2017

Papa John’s Pizza was started in 1984 by John Schnatter in a converted broom closet in the back of his father’s tavern. To buy the pizza equipment he needed, Schnatter sold his 1971 Z28 Camaro for $1,600 dollars to purchase pizza equipment. By 2009, he was able to pay $250,000 dollars to get back that same Camaro. According to Forbes, he is currently worth $801 billion and the Papa John’s Pizza Company is worth more than $3 billion.

Pizza empires take generations, millennia to build — John Schnatter built one in 30 years.

Is Papa John a business genius? Yes. Is he the John Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie of his generation? Yes. Does his pizza have “better ingredients, better pizza?” Maybe. Does he have far too much power? Absolutely.

Papa John controls over 4,700 pizza establishments around the world. In 2012, Papa John’s sent over 500,000 unwanted text messages to its customers. Papa John’s is the official pizza of the National Football League (NFL). Peyton Manning owns 21 Papa John’s franchises in the Denver area. Papa John controls what you eat, what you see on your phone, what you watch on your TV and your favorite retired quarterback. He is a man in the pizza trade, but a man that has power over far more than your pizza.

His competitors have tried to stop his rampant rise to power. In 1997, Pizza Hut sued Papa John’s in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, asserting that just because their pizza has “better ingredients” doesn’t mean it is “better pizza” — what some would say is a preposterous accusation. The court ruled, however, that the phrases “better ingredients” and “better pizza” are not subject to quantifiable measures and therefore are not false advertising under the Lanham Act. Papa John came out successful and was allowed to continue to amass his power.

Pizza Hut may have been on to something, however. Papa John’s power and abnormal rise to success may be due to his advertising campaigns. Namely the two slogans “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza” and “My Town, My Papa John’s.”

In hearing those slogans we all think to ourselves, “Why would I eat normal ingredients and normal pizza, when I can eat Papa John’s?” And we think, “Did Papa John just hand me the keys to the kingdom, is it really my Papa John’s?” It’s advertising that makes us trust Papa. We want to eat the better pizza and we want it to be our Papa John’s. Other pizza restaurants don’t give us that security, that affirmation, that love. Papa John’s does.

Papa John doesn’t just want to control us mentally; he wants to control us physically as well. When asked if he would ever consider running for political office, Schnatter said, “You never say never.”

A private jet, a $7.8 million villa in Nashville, Tennessee, a $5.4 million penthouse in Naples, Florida, and a $23 million hotel and resort in Deer Valley, Utah, aren’t enough for Papa John. He wants more than just a weirdly successful pizza chain that unexplainably puts green peppers in its boxes. Papa John wants us. And Papa John gets what he wants.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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