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Papa John's faces backlash after U.S. franchisee refuses to close 190 Russia stores

“The vast majority of Russian people are very clearheaded,” said the franchise operator, Christopher Wynne. “And at the end of the day, they appreciate a good pizza."
Empty pizza boxes on a counter at a Papa John's in Moscow on Aug. 16, 2011.
Empty pizza boxes on a counter at a Papa John's in Moscow in August 2011.Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Pizza chain Papa John's is facing heavy criticism on social media after a U.S. franchise operator in Russia refused to close 190 stores, even after the company said it would suspend all corporate operations there after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The operator, Christopher Wynne, told The New York Times that he won’t close the pizza shops controlled by his company but mostly owned by Russians. The 190 stores are the vast majority of Russia’s Papa John’s locations.

“The best thing I can do as an individual is show compassion for the people, my employees, franchisees and customers without judging them because of the politicians in power,” Wynne, 45, of Colorado, told the newspaper.

“The vast majority of Russian people are very clearheaded and understand the dark gravity of the situation they’re in,” he said. “And at the end of the day, they appreciate a good pizza."

Papa John's followed other high-profile companies operating in Russia in suspending operations there last week. McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola announced they wouldn't be operating there.

Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson announced the suspension of business activities in Russia on March 8, and Yum! Brands said it was suspending operations at KFC company-owned restaurants and that it was working on doing the same with Pizza Hut.

Papa John’s announced March 9 that it had "suspended all corporate operations in Russia," adding, "It has ceased all operational, marketing and business support to, and engagement with, the Russian market."

"Papa John’s International is not currently receiving any royalties from these franchised stores in Russia. Papa John’s International does not own or operate any restaurants in Russia," the company said in a statement.

Still, with Wynne refusing to close his stores, criticism of the Papa John's brand was swift.

"Call them 'Papa Putin’s' or 'Putin’s John,'" one person tweeted.

Many people called for boycotts stateside.

"Sorry Papa Johns. If your Moscow franchisee won’t close his Russia stores, we can boycott your pizza in the US," one person wrote.

Others noted recent controversies that have plagued the chain.

In 2018, Papa John’s founder John Schnatter resigned as chairman after he used a racial slur on a conference call.

Schnatter admitted at the time that he used “inappropriate and hurtful language."

“Regardless of the context, I apologize,” Schnatter said in an email to Forbes. “Simply stated, racism has no place in our society.”

He later famously said he “had over 40 pizzas in the last 30 days,” criticizing the quality of the pies following his ouster.

Schnatter also made headlines in 2012 when he suggested he would have to cut employee hours and raise prices to make up for the cost of Obamacare.

He later clarified, "We have no plans to cut team hours as a result of the Affordable Care Act.”

Papa John's did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The New York Times reported that the company "temporarily" cut ties with Wynne's business in Russia.

In a statement it emailed to the newspaper, Papa John's said it believed its decision to close stores in Russia was “supported by the vast majority of our team members, franchisees, customers and communities around the globe.”

Wynne seems resolved regardless of Papa John's stance. "Papa John’s is worried about the corporate and political winds that, on a day-to-day basis, I cannot focus on,” he said.