Dec. 21 (UPI) -- The founder and CEO of Papa John's will step down next month, the company announced Thursday.
John Schnatter will be replaced by company president Steve Ritchie effective Jan. 1, according to a company press release.
Schnatter became the face of the third-largest pizza chain in the country by appearing in several television commercials and print advertisements over the years since the company's founding in 1984. But Schnatter has also been outspoken on other issues, including the NFL's reaction to players protesting during the national anthem, which he blamed for hurting his company's pizza sales since ratings for games have been down and Papa John's is a main sponsor of the NFL.
"This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago," Schnatter told investors during a conference call in November. "The controversy is polarizing the customer, polarizing the country."
Schnatter's comments were criticized for being racist, tone-deaf and hostile to free speech. He became the butt of jokes everywhere from late night talk show hosts to the white supremacist Daily Stormer website, which joked that Papa John's was the "official pizza of the alt-right," according to CNN.
The company later issued an apology for Schnatter's comments.
"We believe in the right to protest inequality and support the players' movement to create a new platform for change," papa John's said on Twitter. "We also believe together, as Americans, we should honor our anthem."
Although the company hasn't said if Schnatter's comments were a driving force behind his resignation, but industry analysts say the timing indicates it had at least some effect.
"At the very least, it was distracting and I'm wondering whether this was board-driven or if it was John's choice," restaurant consultant John Gordon of the Pacific Management Consulting Group told USA Today.
The promotion of Ritchie to CEO will be he first time the company has been headed by somebody other than Schnatter. According to the company press release, Ritchie started at Papa John's as a customer service representative in 1996 making $6 per hour. Ten years later, he became an owner of a franchise and has since taken on larger roles in the corporate side of the business.