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Illustration by JR Fleming

The Weird World of Pizza CEOs

Amanda Scherker
Dec 6, 2019 · 6 min read

How many pizzas have you eaten in the past 30 days? If you’re John Schnatter, the former owner of Papa John’s, the answer is a cool 40 pies, according to a recent WDRB interview with the disgraced peddler of mediocre Italian fast-food.

A clip of Schnatter’s interview went viral for just how positively unhinged he seemed. Drenched in sweat, the former pizza mogul decried the board members who engineered his ousting after he used a racial slur on a company phone call. (For his part, Schnatter has argued that the racial slur was employed merely to paraphrase the words of another, actually racist person.) He declared that his successor “has no pizza experience… He doesn’t really know quality.” Perhaps most amusingly, he darkly swore, “The day of reckoning will come. The record will be straight… Stay tuned.”

Schnatter’s bizarre testimony was ripe for internet virality, containing the right balance of absurdity and specificity that keeps eternally-online folks clicking that “retweet” button.

But Schnatter’s strange rant isn’t exactly an aberration. The truth is that American pizza moguls have a rather peculiar history, and stand out as a remarkably bizarre breed of businessman. That’s for better or for worse, depending on your worldview, but it helps if your worldview hews closely to strict Catholicism or evangelical Christianity.

Let’s start with Schnatter, who, as founder of the country’s fourth-largest pizza chain, has had his fair share of public controversy. First of all, this is hardly the first time he’s decried the legitimacy of his successors, doing so most elaborately in an article he penned for the New York Post last month in defense of his actions. Then, there’s the substance of his ousting — a very public beef with the NFL. He criticized the league for failing to resolve the National Anthem protests, in which players knelt to symbolize their objection to police brutality against people of color, and, in particular, black men. After he dismissed the fraught scenario as “a debacle,” Papa John’s stock shares subsequently plummeted by 11%. Schnatter followed his public scandal by donating one million dollars to a historically black college in a move the skeptics among us might call cynical at best.

Before this, Schnatter was notorious in the business community for building a toxic and bizarre culture at Papa John’s, one where he had his face painted on the ceiling of the company headquarters. He would disappear for days on end during work trips (presumed by some to be cheating on his wife) and was accused of groping and then stalking a woman he met at a party. (Schnatter countersued her for extortion, and the case eventually was settled confidentially.) A Papa John’s marketing employee also accused him of sexual misconduct, and her case was also settled confidentially, while an anonymous employee told Forbes that Schnatter inquired about her bra size and whether she’d had sex with a former boss.

Besides perviness, paranoia marked many of his strange behaviors. According to Forbes, “He allegedly recruited Papa John’s employees to spy on their colleagues. He read workers’ emails, according to two sources with knowledge of the episodes, and sometimes conducted business from disposable phones.”

But Schnatter’s seedy antics seem rather run of the mill when compared to the sky-high dreams of Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan. The guy is a bonafide rags to riches tale, having turned a $900 loan into the nation’s largest pizza chain by working 100-hour weeks, refusing to sit down at work, and perfecting his pie-making skills until he was able to slap together a pepperoni pizza in a neat 11 seconds. Once the brand grew, Monaghan quickly instituted his own moral code for corporate employees, including barring women from wearing pants and men from wearing sports jackets, according to People. He also had the elevators at the Domino’s headquarters purposely slowed down to “encourage” employees to take the stairs. So there’s that.

It’s all well and good and debatably American-dreamy, but then there’s his recreational activities. Monaghan is a fervent religious crusader who has publicly stated that his earthly purpose is to get as many people into heaven as possible. He swore what he calls a “millionaire’s vow of poverty,” a project he began by selling off his shares of Domino’s Pizza to Bain Capital for $1 billion in 1998. At the time, he said, “We have 5,000 pizza outlets. My goal now is 5,000 chapels.” Since then, he’s used much of his wealth, which he refers to as “God’s money,” to contribute immense funds to Catholic causes, and, in particular, the pro-life movement, according to New Yorker.

His anti-abortion crusade has manifested in many ways. In 2012, he sued the federal government over the Affordable Care Act mandate requiring him to provide employees contraceptive care (The lawsuit dubbed contraceptives “gravely immoral.”) At one point, he also apparently paid employees for hours spent participating in protests against abortion, according to the MIT Tech. Sometimes his support was merely financial, making many donations including calling in a $50,000 pledge to fight state-funded abortions during a live telethon, as noted by the Independent. Apparently, his views also dictate that he calculate his age based not on the date of his birth but on the date of his conception — which, objectively: gross.

But then there’s his largest project of all: In 1998, Monaghan created a Catholic law school, Ave Maria University, and then, in 2005, founded a surrounding town of Ave Maria, Florida, with the goal of “changing the world.” The town of Ave Maria was envisioned as a religious “paradise” in which at least 90% of the population would be practicing Catholics. Interestingly enough, Monaghan planned to ban pornography and birth control. When outlining his plans for Ave Maria, Monaghan said, “If you go to the drug store and you want to buy the pill or the condoms or contraception, you won’t be able to get that in Ave Maria Town.” (Indeed, the town’s only OB/GYN won’t prescribe contraceptive medicine to any woman for any reason, though New Yorker clarifies that selling contraceptives is discouraged, rather than banned.) This definitely-normal small-town-theocracy stuff has led his critics to call the project a “Catholic Jonestown.” An architecture-enthusiast, Monaghan designed the centerpiece of the extremely-isolated town, the Ave Maria Oratory to seat 11,000 people, though the town itself only had about 720 homes as of 2016. When asked whether gay people could live in the town, Monaghan said, “In the first place, I don’t know how many gay couples are going to want to come live in the town. And if we can’t prevent it, well, we’ll tolerate it.” So that’s nice. The town now calls itself “The Fastest Growing Community in Southwest Florida.”

That said, occasionally, the eccentricities of a pizza mogul can be positively and indisputably beautiful. Take Mike Ilitch, the now-deceased founder of pizza chain Little Caesars, who quietly paid the monthly rent for civil rights activist Rosa Parks for over a decade (until her death) when she was too poor to afford safe housing. And that was just one among many ways he helped his home-city of Detroit. As one local, Judge Damon Keith, put it, “He saved the Fox Theatre. He built Comerica Park, and he kept the hockey and baseball teams thriving here when times were tough.” Sometimes, it seems, a wealthy pizza man can objectively make the world a better place.

It’s unclear whether the pizza industry simply attracts eccentrics, or if making pizza can drive perfectly-sane folks a little bit crazy. A brief glance at some lesser-known pizza shop owners brings up antics ranging from hiding a bag filled with mice in the ceiling of a competitor’s restaurant to masturbating in the kitchen of their own restaurant, from stabbing a woman with a pen to setting fire to their former pizza shop after being evicted. But whether they’re single-handedly constructing a community that adheres dogmatically to their exact values, giving an insane interview to a Kentucky TV station, or financially supporting a legendary Civil Rights activist, odds are you can catch the average pizza shop owner doing the decidedly unexpected.

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