Photo of Papa Johns mambo sauce wings by Laura Hayess mambo sauce wings by Laura Hayes

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D.C.’s signature sauce could go national thanks to a chain that came under fire in 2018 after its founder, John Schnatter, used the N-word on a conference call. Papa John’s launched mambo sauce-coated wings and chicken poppers on Jan. 31 at select D.C.-area locations. The pizza-maker calls their mambo sauce “a sweet and savory, tomato-based wing sauce originating from the Washington, DC area.”

Papa John’s partnered with Maryland-based company Capital City, which has been making Capital City Mambo sauce since 2011, to bring select locations in the D.C. area the mambo sauce-tossed items. But some question whether teaming up with a black-owned business can temper the damage that’s already been done.

On Feb. 9, Capital City announced the partnership on its website, saying, “This was a hard decision to make considering Papa John’s history. But through conversations and meetings, we realized the company is made up of a lot of really great people who are serious about making sure Papa John’s is doing better in the communities where they do business.” Capital City did not respond to City Paper’s requests for additional comment.

Andy Freitas, who owns franchise locations of Papa John’s Pizza in D.C. and Baltimore, explains that this partnership started with him trying out Capital City Mambo Sauce and meeting the owners Arsha and Charles Jones. “Not only was I excited by the sweet [and] savory flavor of the sauce, but also extremely impressed by the business Arsha and Charles were building in the D.C. area,” he says.

Freitas is aware of the image and reputation that Papa John’s needs to repair. “Hopefully, our decision to partner with Capital City Mambo Sauce is a way for us to demonstrate that we’re walking the talk about our commitment to doing better,” he says.

The shockwaves involving what Schnatter said continue to reverberate, and Schnatter and Papa John’s are still engrossed in legal battles. Papa John’s recently had to submit internal documents involving Schnatter and his professional downgrading. CNBC reports that the chain is in financial trouble and is struggling to get people in the door.

When it comes to goals, Freitas says, “We look forward to introducing our customers to an authentically delicious new way to enjoy their Papa John’s wings … and perhaps pique their curiosity to learn more about the origin of mambo sauce.“ He says he also hopes to help bring “further growth opportunities for Arsha and Charles.”

That said, Freitas says the mambo sauce wings and chicken poppers are currently only offered in the DMV area because of Capital City’s production capabilities. To make mambo sauce dishes available to a wider audience, Freitas says the limiting factor will be whether or not “Capital City’s business continues to grow.”

Tone Down, a D.C. native, says that if Papa John’s decides to make mambo sauce part of their national offerings, then it could be “a good move for them” because mambo sauce is a great representation of D.C. culture. “It’s a great sauce—It’s like go-go music, unique to D.C.,” he says.

Down does interpret the mambo sauce menu items at Papa John’s “as a form of cultural appropriation,” but says that won’t stop him from trying them. He wishes they didn’t come pre-coated in sauce as he prefers to dip them immediately before eating them.

For Genesha Murray, a 24-year-old who recently moved to D.C. from Wisconsin, what Schnatter said still stings. Since the news reached her, she says, she’s only had Papa John’s once because she loves the garlic dipping sauce.

The news about the mambo sauce has not changed her opinion. She doesn’t see the company’s actions as sharing culture through food. Instead, she thinks that a certain market is being taken advantage of. “It’s a sour situation,” she says.

In lieu of of ordering Papa John’s, Murray plans to seek out other places to try mambo sauce. “I’ve never had it,” she says. “I’m eager to try it.”