Last week, following a disappointing earnings report that was made public, Papa John’s Pizza CEO John Schnatter took it upon himself to blame his brand’s flagging sales on the NFL and its “poor leadership.” He specifically aimed his ire at what he sees as the league’s failure to curtail the recent wave of player protests against police brutality (or, as conservatives hysterically insist, “against the anthem”).
Schnatter, who donated $1,000 to the Trump campaign and holds a firmly anti-regulation stance, has a history of flapping his yap about political matters. He’s also known for slamming the Affordable Care Act back in 2012, which led to another sales slump for the brand. Apparently, Papa don’t learn.
This week alone their pizza has been compared to burnt hair – and sorrow
The reaction to his boneheaded comments has been swift and merciless, drawing condemnation and derision from across the internet because not only has Schnatter made himself look like a bigoted fool, he’s willfully refusing to acknowledge the real reason sales are down: Papa John’s pizza sucks. This week alone, it’s been compared to U-Haul seat cushions, burnt hair, sorrow, and memorably, “the way long-distance bus travel feels” (Deadspin’s David Roth).
They’ve been thoroughly owned by rival pizza purveyor DiGiorno (who don’t even deliver!) on Twitter. The pizza chain’s cultural stock has fallen to such abysmal lows that the Daily Stormer—an online playground for murderous neo-Nazis—wants to declare it “the official pizza of the alt-right”.
I’ve been watching all of this unfold with barely disguised glee, reveling in the public downfall of the pizza chain I despise so deeply. For me, it’s not just about the sugar-laden sauce, the plasticine cheese, the cardboard crust, or the racist Trump-supporting owner. My reasons are more personal. I hate Papa John’s because it reminds me of feeling poor and powerless.
The elementary school’s “pizza day” took on a darker meaning once I realized how terrible Papa John’s truly is
When I was growing up in rural South Jersey, my mom worked in the kitchen at a high school a few towns over (which I ultimately ended up attending during my freshman year). Before I joined her there, I went to the local elementary school, which served kindergarten to eighth grade and had an overall population of about 200. My unincorporated community was so small and remote that we didn’t have a middle school to funnel kids into, so I’d spent my entire school career from age five until fifteen in the same little brick building, with the same 19-21 kids in my class.
At Chatsworth Elementary, “pizza day” was announced in advance so you could start begging your parents for lunch money well before the main event. Once you’d finally extracted the requisite two dollars, you were granted the privilege of inhaling a proud, wilting portion of what was grandly dubbed “French bread pizza.” Compared to my otherwise daily peanut butter sandwiches, it was manna from heaven.
I didn’t realize that having a parent who worked in kitchens was seen a “bad” thing until I made friends at school and realized they all lived in nice, big houses
On the contrary, at my mom’s school they served Papa John’s pizza every day for the kids who could afford it. This at first seemed like an unimaginable luxury to me—real delivery pizza, for lunch, at school?! Sadly, “pizza day” began to take on a darker meaning once I realized how terrible Papa John’s truly was…especially once it’s been frozen and hastily reheated by clumsy adolescent hands.
Having my mom work in the school cafeteria as I did my best to seem “cool” was a challenge, but not in the way one might expect. My mom was infinitely cooler than me, and was friends with all the football players and wrestlers; they called her “Susie”, and always made sure to end up at her register. She’d often be joking around with them as I crept up to pay for my lunch of anything-but-pizza, then loudly introduce me as her daughter while I shrank into my baby goth Hot Topic uniform.
I didn’t realize that having a parent who worked in kitchens was seen as a “bad” thing until I made friends at school and realized they all lived in nice, big houses with manicured lawns, and had parents who worked as lawyers, teachers, stay at home parents—worlds away from our little ranch home out in the woods.
I could never work out if she was allowed to bring this stuff home, but she did anyway
Navigating that space helped teach me about class in a way that schoolbooks never could, and had the side effect of instilling a fierce pride in our working class status; yeah, your dad may run a company, but my dad and his backhoe helped rebuild an entire city after Hurricane Sandy (and could definitely beat up your dad).
I wasn’t embarrassed by her job. I thought my mom was rad, but as a budding alt teen, I was embarrassed about the attention. The extra chicken fingers Mom snuck me usually helped assuage the pain, too, and made her seem even cooler since she was breaking the rules.
The school administration forbid her from giving me free food for lunch, so every day, we performed the same bizarre ritual: she’d hand me money out of her purse in the morning, take that same money from me at lunchtime to pay for whatever garbage I insisted on eating, then bring home massive bags of frozen chicken fingers for me and my sister to munch on after soccer practice. I could never work out if she was allowed to bring this stuff home, but she did anyway; it certainly helped keep two growing girls fed and happy on a kitchen worker’s and construction worker’s salaries.
‘Real’ pizza became just one more thing I couldn’t have, like karate lessons or expensive jeans
How does Papa John’s fit into all this? Invariably, not enough kids could (or wanted to) buy slices of Papa John’s at lunch, so there were always mountains of leftovers—including entire untouched pies that my mom ended up bringing home for dinner alongside her usual haul. Most of the time, they ended up in the freezer, because even then, as a growing teenager who spent most of her time at soccer practice, I was repulsed by the stacks of plain— always plain—slices congealing quietly on the kitchen counter. The cheese was tolerable, but that sauce—a gloopy nightmare of sugar, more sugar, and rancid tomato – is what really killed me.
I’d do my best to scrape off all the sauce before eating, but that wretched red marzipan clung so determinedly to the cheese that I could never fully rid myself of the foul flavor. For a while I gave up on the cheese entirely and decided to only eat the crusts, until my mom caught me and gave me a lecture on vitamins (and how stupid I was being).
Papa John’s haunted me. I’ve always been a picky eater and wasn’t the most accomplished cook as a teen. Reheating frozen Papa’s was basically the height of my culinary ability, so despite my best efforts, I ended up eating a lot of that fucking pizza. So, too, did any friends who came over to visit, and, if he was coming home late from a job site, so did my dad – who ended up hating Papa John’s even more than I do. Mom always answered our pleas for “real pizza” by saying, “We have real pizza in the freezer,” consigning us all to the tepid embrace of Papa John. “Real pizza” became just one more thing I couldn’t have, like karate lessons or expensive jeans.
It’s been satisfying seeing hordes of other Americans pile on to skewer Papa John’s
Being stuck with them for all those years left such a bad taste in my mouth that now, I’m reveling in delicious schadenfreude over the Papa’s current predicament—which, it appears, has only gotten worse, culminating in a sick burn from Pizza Hut (with whom I have a similarly complicated relationship thanks to their iconic Book-It program, which my grandmother helped me scam in order to achieve the apparently family-wide goal of free pizza).
It’s been even more satisfying seeing hordes of other Americans (working class and otherwise) pile on to summarily skewer Papa John’s and its eponymous owner. The brand’s most enduring appeal has always been its price, which remains tantalizingly low, and NFL viewing party-friendly versus higher quality options. When even broke folks are turning their noses up at your budget mozzarella planks, though, you know you really fucked up.
We undoubtedly saved a ton of money thanks to Mom’s cafeteria grifting, and I’m forever grateful to her for giving the finger to her rich employers so we could have junk food—but god, I wish it had been Domino’s.
Image: Denise Krebs