Grand Valley to cut business ties with Papa John’s

Papa Johns in the Connection.  GVL / Andrew Nyhof

Papa John’s in the Connection.  GVL / Andrew Nyhof

Devin Dely

In June of 2018, Papa John’s Pizza CEO and founder John Schnatter came under fire for using a racial slur during a conference call. After the call was made public, the story was picked up by multiple media outlets and resulted in Schnatter’s resignation as CEO. 

Though Schnatter is no longer the face of the company, they are still dealing with the fallout as businesses and organizations continue to cut ties with the nationwide pizza chain, the latest of which is Grand Valley State University. 

Around the beginning of the school year in August, the Papa John’s location in the Commons on GVSU’s Allendale campus was replaced by Oath Pizza. According to GVSU Vice President of Finance Greg Sanial, the location in the Connection is also on its way out. Although the timing of this change has much to do with the comments Schnatter made in June, Sanial says the university has been considering ending their business relationship with the company for quite some time.  

“We had started internal discussions about replacing Papa John’s in the spring,” Sanial said. “Sales have been declining, and the brand has not evolved as you’d expect it to do in that pizza market. We had sort of targeted the 2020 time frame for that change, but when the founder made those inappropriate comments on that conference call, we accelerated that process; those comments just don’t agree with the core principles here at Grand Valley State.” 

Although the Papa John’s in Fuel was replaced immediately, replacing the franchise in the Connection is not as easy. Sanial says this is due to a difference in the types of franchises at each location; the location in the Commons was an institutional franchise with a limited menu while the full franchise in the Connection has a full menu as well as delivery services and territorial rights.  

“With the one that was in Fuel, it was very easy,” Sanial said. “It’s a much smaller operation, so it was a very easy change to make to the Oath Pizza that we have now. The existing territorial franchise has a full menu, so there’s more equipment, more training that’s involved; there’s also a longer notification process when we want to terminate the relationship. Aramark owns the franchise, and we work in a partnership with Aramark to operate the franchise.”

Numerous universities have already ended their business relationships with the pizza chain, including the University of Louisville, whose football stadium bore the namesake of the company until the incident. University officials renamed it “Cardinal Stadium” less than a month after Schnatter’s comments were made known to the public. 

Removing a franchise is not as quick of a change. According to Sanial, the remaining Papa John’s location at Grand Valley is expected to close down at the end of the academic year in April and will be completely replaced by next fall, though he says it’s too early to tell exactly what kind of business will take that space. 

“It’s completely up in the air, and that’s part of the process,” Sanial said. “We take feedback from students, we work with Aramark, we do a market survey; we take a portfolio approach to all of our dining options available on campus. We identify something that we think would fill a gap we currently have and something that we think the students would enjoy.”  

Corporate representatives from Papa John’s and their former PR firm, Olson Engage, were asked numerous times to speak on the issue but were unavailable. Campus Dining officials at GVSU could also not be reached for further comment. 

Grand Valley and Aramark Corporation are currently working to find a replacement option for Papa John’s before it closes in April. Until then, they will remain open at their regular hours.