Better Ingredients, Better Country: Inside Papa John's Top-Secret Presidential Campaign

There are many reasons why I shouldn’t have the information I have about Papa John Schnatter, and only one reason that I do. The reasons why not are plentiful. I am not, for instance, a fan of his pizza, and have been critical of it in the past — I have said, on the record and in many instances to people who didn’t even ask what I thought of Papa John’s, that I think Papa John’s pizza “tastes like being in an airport feels” and “is basically an industrial accident covered with seven pounds of shredded cheese.”

These critiques, I am aware, are not necessarily unique. What put me on Schnatter’s enemies list, finally, were two things. The first was my attempt to write an unauthorized musical about him called Papa John: Turn Off The Dark. The second, in what I can now admit was a spiteful response to his legal team’s defeat of that project (for which I’d already secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in financing, and the songwriting cooperation of Spandau Ballet’s Gary and Martin Kemp), was my attempt to bring Schnatter to trial at the International Criminal Court for “the weaponization of yeast,” “crimes against dairy” and “that fucking garlic dipping sauce, which just gets more alarming the more you look at it and anyway tastes less like garlic than it does hangover-mouth.” The suit, justifiably, didn’t go very far, and led only to a reprimand from the ICC’s Special Rapporteur for Food Crimes regarding my use of profanity in the charge related to the dipping sauce. It was not a proud moment for me. But it did help me make the acquaintance of a highly placed Papa John’s source.

After the ICC thing, my name was in the press for a while, which was tough. My source, who has insisted that I call him “The Noid,” got my name from a mocking editorial about me in Pizza Marketplace Magazine, and reached out to me because he felt “people don’t know the truth” about Schnatter and Papa John’s. “This guy, everyone thinks he just spends his time invading the homes of exurban white people, handing out pizzas and dispensing those weird piston-y high-fives, like in the commercials,” he told me during our first conversation. “It’s either that or they think he spends all his time, like, scrutinizing green bell peppers to see if they meet his exacting standards. And it’s true he spends a lot of time staring at peppers, but there’s more to all this. He can be cruel. People don’t know about that. The second tanning bed in his office that he uses to ‘discipline’ executives. The way he whips honey chipotle chicken strips at people for no reason. The pranks, God. I have ‘Better Ingredients, Better Pizza’ tattooed on my lower back, and I don’t have any idea how it got there, so that’s barely even a prank, at least in my book.”

But those allegations, too, aren’t new. “The Noid” is still with Papa John’s — he says that if he left, the repercussions for his family would be “unimaginable, unspeakable — I’ve seen him make people, kids even, actually eat the Spinach Alfredo pizza.” But he has chosen to leak select memos from Papa John’s executive headquarters — located a mile beneath the University of Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium — because he thinks the public needs to know the Papa John he knows.

“They don’t see the guy who makes these terrifying surprise visits to different branches, and if you can’t name all the ingredients on the John’s Favorite pie he’ll make you chug honey mustard dipping sauce or put you on mushroom-inspection duty for a week. People don’t know that guy. He’s not who everyone thinks. And he’s very ambitious.”

It’s that last bit that matters here. Late on Sunday night, as the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain first came to light, The Noid called me. He was out of breath, although he often is — “the healthiest thing you can get in the cafeteria is the Grilled Chicken Club Pizza,” he told me once. This time seemed different, though. “I’m sending you something big,” he said. “The thing we talked about is happening. The big thing.” He had been sending me information about “the big thing” for some time: Papa John quietly retaining the services of Ed Rollins and Bay Buchanan as consultants; his “fact-finding” visits to Iowa and New Hampshire during the spring; the abrupt and combative tack to the right on Israeli settlements in Papa John’s television advertising; the forming of Pizza Party USA, a political action committee, last June; the subsequent announcement of 501(c)4 Super-PAC called Better Ingredients For America in September. The Noid had told me for weeks that Cain would eventually self-destruct. “He’s a weird guy,” Noid told me months ago, “by which I mean that when he was at Godfather’s [Pizza] he appointed an old pizza box to the corporate board and made everyone call it ‘Suzanne.’” Now, it seemed, Cain’s inevitable collapse was happening. And, as The Noid had said for months, Papa John was making his own run for President.

I will never forget the end of my last conversation with Noid. “Shit, I have to go, I have to go,” he said Sunday night, “check your email.” When he got off the phone, as he always did, by saying “Better ingredients, better pizza,” his voice was small, frightened. I could hear the weird, whooping laugh of Schnatter himself — already familiar to me from his television commercials and my nightmares — in the background. Below is a transcription of the memo that The Noid sent me.

TO: [Redacted]
FROM: Team Schnatter,,

Executive Summary: Circumstances in the Republican presidential campaign currently present a unique opportunity, with the scandal currently surrounding Herman Cain opening the “pizza hole” in the field. Candidate Schnatter polls strongly among crucial demographics, has a pronounced messaging advantage, and enjoys a significant imaging advantage as well. In short, THIS IS OUR TIME.

  1. Polling
    Due to the unofficial nature of our campaign, early polling on Candidate Schnatter has been limited — but very promising indeed. Nationally, Schnatter is the most recognizable of any of the current or potential Republican nominees; as discussed, even if [Tom] Selleck opts to pursue the Republican nomination, Schnatter remains a close second. Promisingly, 14 percent of likely voters believe that Schnatter is already the President of the United States, giving us a small but critical incumbency advantage. Candidate Schnatter’s negatives are notable, but of the 47% of voters who answered in the affirmative when asked, “Are you afraid that Papa John is going to show up at your house with a dozen rapidly cooling pizzas and a bunch of two-liters of Diet Coke, then make you watch Conference USA football games and do lots of high-fives?” nearly half said that their biggest concern was having to watch Conference USA football, not high-five Candidate Schnatter. The three phrases most commonly associated with Candidate Schnatter were “weird nodding and unmotivated laughter in his commercials,” “clammy-but-somehow-also-parched, couch-bound indigestion” and “bold leadership.” In short, there’s a lot to work with.
  2. Messaging
    Here is where we can really shine. Other candidates struggle to put their beliefs into brief, catchy slogans. For example, Mitt Romney’s current campaign slogan, “This Thing I Believe: The Exceptionalism Of America And Its Unique Business Leader Community And Job Creation Environment Which Is Under Assault Is Not Something To Apologize For, At Home Or Abroad,” polls poorly among English speakers; Newt Gingrich’s “ This Historical Thriller I Co-Authored About What Would Have Happened Had The South Won The Civil War Should Answer All Your Questions About My Views On Muslims And Immigration,” to take another example, is just a hyperlink leading to his author page on Candidate Schnatter, on the other hand, already has numerous successful slogans, all of which can be easily “scaled” up into political slogans — “At Papa John’s, It’s About Better Pizza” can easily become “At Papa John’s, It’s About Better Pizza And Reducing Needless Entitlement Spending And Freeing Our Job Creators From The Highest Business Taxes In The Developed World,” for instance. “Nobody does what Papa John’s does” scales easily into “Nobody does what Papa John’s does… Which Is Let Small Business Owners Innovate, Without Bureaucrats And Onerous Regulation Get In The Way.” Other candidates’ messages can be absorbed and repurposed, as well. For instance, Romney’s “No Apologies” becomes “Papa John Doesn’t Apologize For Using 100% Real Premium Meats On His ‘The Meats’ Pizza, And He Won’t Apologize For American Greatness Abroad, Either.”
  3. The Ground Game
    With thousands of franchises across the United States and hundreds of “Pizza Consulates” in the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada and other major “pizz-allies,” Team Schnatter has a reach that no other campaign can boast. Additionally, the Papa John’s franchises in such Middle East nations as Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait position Candidate Schnatter as the most experienced foreign-policy hand in the Republican field — “I have been to the Middle East, and I know that what they hunger for is the same miserable, cheese-squelched pizzas that we enjoy here in The Greatest Country In Human History,” for instance. “The total destruction of our freedoms and way of life” can be substituted for “miserable, cheese-squelched etc,” depending on the audience.

CONCLUSION: The “better ingredients” for a winning campaign are all in place. Our task now is to make the “better pizza” of a campaign that accurately and compelling communicates Papa John’s exceptional values. The national “pizza hole” is open as never before. It’s up to us to help Papa John shove a bunch of hot garbage into it, and win.

David Roth co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. And he tweets!