Papa John's faces backlash after American Russia franchisee refuses to close 190 stores

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

The operator, Christopher Wynne, told The New York Times he won’t close the pizza shops controlled by his company, but mostly owned by Russians. The 190 stores make up 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, a 45-year-old Colorado native, 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," Wynne added.

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

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

On March 9, Papa John’s announced it had "suspended all corporate operations in Russia. 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's statement said.

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 of the company after he used a racial slur while on a conference call.

He later infamously 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 NBC News' request for comment Wednesday.

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

A statement emailed to the newspaper from Papa John's said it believed the company's 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 in his decision 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.

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