They said what?: When restaurant execs go rogue
“Papa John” Schnatter is not the only restaurant leader who’s drawn fire to his brand by uttering offensive remarks. Here’s a brief recount of outbursts and ill-conceived comments that have plunged other restaurant operations into controversy.
Ray Danner’s code phrases at Shoney’s
Shoney’s made history when it agreed to pay $105 million in 1993 to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging rampant racial discrimination within the chain. Among the evidence that figured into the highest-ever civil rights settlement: a tendency of Shoney’s CEO Ray Danner to express alarm in thinly veiled terms when he felt a restaurant had too many African-American customers. Danner was known to remark aloud that the dining room was too dark or the coffee needed lightening up.
He also allegedly developed a system when hiring for management positions to let HR know when an applicant was black. Danner or a subordinate would reportedly color in the “O” in the Shoney’s logo on the application.
The allegations led to Danner’s ouster from the chain he helped found, and Shoney’s spent years trying to change its culture and improve its image.
Colonel Sanders blasts his brainchild
At age 86, the iconic founder of KFC was challenged by The New York Times restaurant critic and food writer Mimi Sheraton to visit one of the restaurants bearing his image. Sheraton had stacked the deck by suggesting a unit had served her “some of the worst fried chicken I’ve ever eaten in my life,” as she wrote in her 1976 account of the spontaneous visit.
Sanders, who’d sold his rights to the chain by that point, tore into the place for its god-awful fare and slipshod operations. “There's no way anyone can get me to swallow those potatoes,” he was quoted as saying after seeing how the mashed potatoes were made. He likened them to “wallpaper paste” topped with a brown sludge masquerading as gravy.
The chicken had been fried for double the time that leaves it golden brown, Sanders barked, and the coleslaw was shredded, not chopped. And it included carrots. Carrots!
Lest readers think the unit was at fault, Sanders blasted the whole chain as Sheraton scribbled away. An employee countered the Colonel’s criticism with the observation that he was just following procedures. “Well, it's not your fault. You're just working for company that doesn't know what it's doing,” said Sanders, blasting KFC’s then-owner, Heublein.
The story became a sensation, or what today might be called an internet meme.
Ray Kroc, baseball game changer
Diplomacy was not the McDonald’s builder’s strong point, as he vividly proved at the start of his tenure as owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team. After suffering through a few games of little league-caliber play by a squad that included a number of future Hall of Famers, Kroc couldn’t help himself. He seized an opportunity to take control of the public address system and speak directly to the fans about what they were all witnessing on the field.
“I suffer with you,” he said in amplified voice to the 30,000-plus fans in attendance. “I have never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life."
McDonald’s would have been spared any collateral damage if Doug Rader, the Padres’ free-spirited third baseman, hadn’t retorted with a slam that referenced Kroc’s business life. He and his teammates were so outraged by the public dress-down that they considered a walkout. Rader reportedly remarked, “He thinks he's in a sales convention dealing with a bunch of short-order cooks.”
The Padres seized on the promotional opportunities, holding a Short-Order Cooks Night where anyone who came to the game dressed in cook’s whites and carrying a frying pan would be admitted for free. Rader delivered the lineup to the umpire team in a frying pan.
Kroc’s outburst led to a new MLB rule that prohibited team owners from using the public-address system during a game.
Tom Monaghan’s mouth = PR challenge for Domino’s
The difficulty of separating a restaurant chain founder from his brainchild were dialed into sharp focus by Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan after he’d sold the chain for $1 billion.
Monaghan used part of the proceeds to develop a Catholic educational facility as well as a surrounding town that would adhere rigidly to the tenets of the church. “There is not going to be any pornographic television in Ave Maria Town," Monaghan publicly said in 2004. “If you go to the drug store and you want to buy the pill or the condoms or contraception, you won't be able to get that in Ave Maria Town."
Monaghan retracted the comments in short order. Nevertheless, the statement triggered an outcry and threats of a boycott against Domino’s—even though Monaghan had no connection to the chain by that point. The controversy and collateral damage intensified with reports that Monaghan was donating to groups that openly opposed abortion and blasted homosexuality.
Despite having no connection to its founder, as verified by such fact-checking websites as Snopes.com, Domino’s felt it necessary to state emphatically, and repeatedly, that the chain did not agree with Monaghan’s social attitudes and personal precepts.
Dan Cathy’s religious conviction
Chick-fil-A’s support of groups opposed to same-sex marriages generated considerable controversy in 2012. Follow-up comments from CEO Dan Cathy only intensified the fallout. Asked how the chicken chain could take a stance against gay relationships, the son of founder Truett Cathy told the media point-blank that he believed same-sex unions are wrong.
The comments led to boycotts of Chick-fil-A and demonstrations that included a kiss-in, where gay couples met and locked lips in hopes of embarrassing the brand.
Cathy has since moderated his position—but not his opinions. He has never denied his religious convictions, but stresses that everyone has a right to his or her perspective. And he and his chain have stressed that everyone is welcome at a Chick-fil-A.