After apologizing for ‘divisive’ NFL anthem stance, Papa John’s announces it’s ditching pizza CEO

Is Papa John’s throwing in the towel?

The pizza chain announced on Thursday that founder, John Schnatter, will step down as CEO next month.

(Photo by Jack Dempsey/Invision for Papa John’s/AP Images).

Effective January 1, Schnatter will be replaced by current Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie, AP reports.

Schnatter, who is the company’s largest shareholder and appears in the chain’s commercials and pizza boxes, will remain chairman on the board.

The pizza icon started Papa John’s over three decades ago as a pizza spot in his father’s bar. The company now operates more than 5,000 locations. Schnatter also stepped down as CEO in 2005 but returned three years later.

Ritchie joined Papa John’s 21 years ago as a minimum wage employee making pizzas and answering phone calls. He eventually became a franchise owner in 2006 and owns nine locations.

Schnatter with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (left). (Photo by Charles Norfleet/FilmMagic).

The change in leadership came weeks after the pizza chain was involved in a public dispute with the NFL, whom Papa John’s blamed for its declining sales.

The company cut its NFL TV advertising last month, citing the league’s “poor leadership” in handling the national anthem protests.

“The NFL has hurt us,” Schnatter said. “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.”

Papa John’s later apologized for being “divisive” in its criticism of the NFL.

Company shares are down 13 percent since the NFL announcement was made.

“I think it’s possible that this was a conscious decision to get [Schnatter] out of the line of fire,” restaurant analyst John Gordon said of the shake-up. “The focus of the brand needs to be the pizza.”

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Ritchie said he will focus on making it easier to order Papa John’s from anywhere, including form tweets, text messages, and voice-activated devices. The emphasis came at a time when other fast food restaurants are increasing their delivery services.

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