We’ve seen the gaudiness of the Trump empire. The gold, the paintings of the Donald, Melania’s expensive dresses, Barron’s ginormous stuffed lion, etcetera etcetera. But less is said on the crass opulence of pizza mogul “Papa” John Schnatter, and the castle he’s built in Louisville, Kentucky. Schnatter doesn’t live in a house as much as a 40,000 square foot pillow fort made of gold bullion, luxuries strewn about haphazardly. After overseeing the sale of cheesy bread disks, Schnatter drives over his property’s artificial pond into a 22-car garage, passing the dedicated valet office. He exits whichever car he’s chosen that day into the house proper, a rococo nightmare with burgundy curtains spanning multiple floors, and a statue thrice his size, multiple bald eagles incorporated in its design. It looks like a set for a film on the French revolution, the prop guillotines held up in traffic. Schnatter will walk outside to the several pools he’s probably never swam in, sit in front of the private golf course he’s probably never golfed on, and contemplates how universal healthcare will ruin him and his business.
Schnatter’s lifestyle is a mimicry of the Trumps’, insinuating himself among the famous, specifically football star Peyton Manning, himself a franchisee of twenty-one pizzerias. Like Trump, Papa John’s brand is an extension of himself, an outlet for self-indulgent pomposity: his pizzas don’t have portabella mushrooms, they have Papabella mushrooms, and every November 16th is National Papa John’s Appreciation day (in case you have your calendars handy.) Schnatter’s politics, like Trump’s, were also shown to be similarly unabashedly for the wealthy, in his public criticism of the Affordable Care Act, saying that it would cause the price of his pizzas to rise alongside creating tens if not hundreds of closures. Of course, no evidence was provided for these projections, nor did they come to fruition, and eventually Schnatter made a walkback on his comments (alongside an extensive PR campaign.) It wasn’t something he would do, but something his franchisees might. Well, good job throwing Peyton Manning under the bus, Papa.
As Trumpian as Papa John may be, he’s really the tip of a trend in the food industry spanning decades. Somehow, there’s something about selling pizza pies that makes a CEO become way more conservative than the mean, in a way that tends to be very public as well. Papa John is at least self-aware enough to improve his image, but many others are just so damn weird in their views they enter a point of no return.
Remember Herman Cain? Christ, do you remember Herman Cain. The 9-9-9 tax plan? Quoting the Pokémon movie in a debate? The ads ending on extreme close-ups on his discomforting come-hither grin? He got his big break in Pizzerias as well, working as the appointed CEO of Godfather’s pizza. His rule was characterized by extreme downsizing. Hundreds of restaurants were closed, and thousands of jobs were cut. Basically, all the stuff Papa John predicted Obamacare would do, but real.
The fact some gaffe-prone pizza man was running for president elicited chuckles from most of the political establishment. But we were too busy laughing at the guy to recognize that he was first place in the republican primaries for a real long stretch. The tea party darling was, in hindsight, a warning sign for Trump’s rise in almost every way. Both were men of poor political knowhow with bizarre proposals: Cain’s declaration that all bills should be limited to three pages or less sounds perfectly in line with the Trumpist ethic now. Yet both rose to the top of the American power structure on the sheer power of inflated self-importance, quickly generating fodder for 24-hour news. The only difference is that while both had sexual misconduct scandals, Cain’s actually sank his campaign.
Cain and Schnatter, as pizza conservatives, are in a continuum with Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan, which can be obscured by being considerably less tacky than his pizza predecessors. Profiles on him in magazines like Bloomberg often speak reverently about his ascetic lifestyle, his emphasis on clean and healthy living, his upbringing in a Catholic orphanage, and his charitable contributions. Yet the nature of those contributions aren’t usually touched on when he’s being portrayed in a positive light. His financial contributions are very strictly defined as “Catholic philanthropy” if they are defined at all.
Now, I myself am a product of a Catholic family history drowning in aunts and uncles, and I’d never criticize an individual’s generosity for being motivated by faith. But, we need to be continuously aware of the ambiguity present in a certain kind of religious charitability. Religious charity can become more defined by the conditions on which its beneficence is based than its actual charity. Which, historically, is exactly what we see with Monaghan, who, while not as public as Cain or Papa John, has arguably had the most direct negative effect on the world of the three: in his thorough involvement in the pro-life movement, his Catholic philanthropy has shown itself to be far more Catholic than philanthropic. Decades before Chick-Fil-A, Monaghan’s strident views were already inviting boycotts on Domino’s from women’s organizations, but that certainly hasn’t stopped him. Since then, he’s put millions of dollars into religious conservative political campaigns, and multiple anti-abortion groups, including the extremists of Operation Rescue, who are, at the very least, indirectly responsible for the murder of Dr. George Tiller.
Monaghan’s dedication to hardline religious conservatism has consumed him enough to craft his own alternate society. The centrepiece of Monaghan’s philanthropy is Ave Maria University, and Ave Maria, Florida, the secluded community of 11,000 built around it. Florida is no stranger to utopian city planning; Disney produced the Experimental Planned City Of Tomorrow there, as well as the saccharine Celebration, FL. But while those communities were experiments in creating towns with unified theories formulated in theme park design, Ave Maria is a Planned City of Yesterday, made to encompass Monaghan’s values. In most of the pictures of Ave Maria, the place seems haunted before even being fully occupied. The entire town is built around an oratory designed by Monaghan himself, originally sketched on a napkin. In front of it is a 9-metre-tall statue of the Annunciation, the “ave maria” for which the town is named. Ave Maria University’s biggest group is (of course) the pro-life club. Most notably, while construction was still ongoing, Monaghan claimed that all porn, condoms and birth control would be denied sale anywhere in Ave Maria’s city limits, until the ACLU intervened. Monaghan has since insisted he doesn’t believe that religious doctrine can translate into law, but his history of financial influence suggests the opposite.
I bring this pattern of the American right in the Pizza industry not just to point out some funny coincidence. We treat pizza like every other fast food, something that doesn’t require much scrutiny, including even the taste: the aphorism goes, “bad pizza is still pizza.” Frankly, all three of the CEOs I’ve profiled here have relied on that a good few times in their careers. But bad pizza has bred bad politics. This extends to the treatment of the 14 million people American pizza employs. Domino’s and Papa John’s are inveterate wage thieves, both withholding around half a million dollars of back pay apiece from New York state employees alone. They are also dedicated to make sure that the wages they do pay don’t rise. American Pizza Community, an advocacy group funded by Domino’s, Papa John’s and others, actively fighting against legal measures on overtime and wage increases. In the US alone, pizza is a 32 billion a year industry and the profit margins are incredible, but that money keeps going to people like Cain, Schnatter and Monaghan, who have shown themselves more than willing to tip the political scales in their favor, becoming antagonistic forces in the spheres of labour, politics and even social policy.
But even the influence they do wield may not be sufficient for them. When USA Today interviewed Schnatter in 2013 and noted the similarities between him and Herman Cain, they ask him in jest if he’s interested in making a bid for political office as well. “He has no desire ‘right now’ to run for office, though he adds, ‘You never want to say never.’”
No, Papa, sometimes you do.
Will Riley writes out of Vancouver, BC. He has been published online and in print by Pilcrow Pamphlet, and has previously contributed to Bunker Magazine. He currently uses his English degree (with honours) to crush rocks for fifteen dollars an hour. Will’s steady diet of comic books probably impedes his ability to be a good lefty. His Twitter is
@KasmKave and his Instagram is willdrileysuperfun.