Papa Johns Founder Out After Mixing Politics, Pizza

Papa John’s is trying to put the focus back on pizza. Founder John Schnatter is stepping aside, and President Steve Ritchie will take over as CEO on January 1.

The move comes after Schnatter dragged the brand across a political minefield when he criticized the NFL for its handling of players’ political protests and which he then blamed for declining sales in the third quarter earnings.

What followed was an ugly mix of boycotts from the left and support from neo-Nazis after a fringe publication dubbed Papa John’s the official pizza brand of the "alt-right." In the days after his comments, the stock (NASDAQ: PZZA) fell 13%. 

Ritchie has been with the brand for more than 20 years, starting in 1996 as a customer service representative. He went on to become a franchisee and eventually became chief operating officer. He was named company president in 2015.

"I am humbled to take on this role," said Ritchie. "By focusing on our team members, we will deliver the world class experiences our customers deserve. At Papa John's, any opportunity is achievable if you dedicate yourself to putting your best foot forward every day. I'm certain our future company leaders are delivering pizzas in one of our 5,000 stores around the world right now."

He said in a Wall Street Journal interview that hopes with the leadership change will bring the focus back to the pizza.

"Clearly all of the PR things have been quite a distraction," Ritchie told the Wall Street Journal. "I want to put the focus back on our people and pizza."

Schnatter will remain the company chairman, focusing on strategy and personal projects, according to a press release.

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