Jane Grote Abell, a founding family member, is the Executive Chairwoman of the Board and Chief Purpose Officer at Donatos Pizza. The driving force behind the decision to purchase Donatos back from McDonald’s in 2003, Jane is a leader who inspires, encourages, and drives the teams to results. With her people-first passion, Jane helped lead the brand to a $10.5 million turnaround after the buyback, and Donatos is a highly sought-after franchise opportunity as it expands its reach coast to coast.
We spoke with Jane to learn about the classic American family business and what it takes to run a values-based business.
Aspioneer (A): Please tell us about what inspired the opening of the first Donatos location on the south side of Columbus in 1963. We know the brand takes pride in doing business the ‘Donatos way,’ can you elaborate?
Jane Grote Abell (J): “My dad, Jim Grote, founded the business over 58 years ago based on the Golden Rule of treating others the way he wanted to be treated and making every decision based on love. Over the years, we have used this as our guiding light for Our Mission – “To promote goodwill through our Product, Principles, Service, and People.” Our name derived from Latin means “to give a good thing” and Our Promise is to “serve the best pizza and make your day a little better.” We love bringing people together over great food and believe that pizza made with love nourishes the soul. We are known for our thin-crust pizzas covered Edge to Edge® with fresh, premium toppings. Our large thin crust pepperoni pizza has 100 pieces of pepperoni on it. We party cut our pizza into rectangles because it makes it easier to share. We also have oven-baked subs and wings, salads, and desserts. We believe in being a good neighbor by being a positive influence in the community. That means conducting our business with respect for the community and maintaining our stores to be an asset to every neighborhood. For example, in 2015 in the neighborhood that is the community for our first location, we founded the non-profit Reeb Avenue Centerwhere we seek to build self-sufficiency through opportunities and transform lives through education, job training, and career support. In a public/private partnership, we raised over $13 million to convert an abandoned elementary school building to serve an impoverished community. Reeb houses over 13 non-profits with a focus on education and workforce development. We began franchising in 1992 because we believe in creating opportunities for entrepreneurship. Today as a third-generation family-owned pizza restaurant company, we are growing across the US through like-minded franchise partners. We have 169 company and franchise restaurants in 10 states. Our pizza is also now served in 171 Red Robin locations in 13 states.”
(A): McDonald’s purchased Donatos. What made you decide to buy it back?
(J): “Our story is unique as we sold our family business to McDonald’s in 1999. While we were not looking for an exit strategy, we were interested in expanding nationally. We believed McDonald’s could help us grow our brand and we could bring our principles of doing business with love to many more communities across the United States. Under the arches, I was named our Chief Business Development and People Officer. This gave me broader learning and experience with franchising. In 2003, McDonald’s stock price hit a historic low and they decided to sell or close Donatos. I was the catalyst behind putting the strategy together to buy our family business back from McDonald’s. On December 11, 2003, I presented our plan to the brand board for McDonald’s, and my dad and I purchased our family business back from McDonald’s.”
“To promote goodwill through our Product, Principles, Service, and People.” Our name derived from Latin means “to give a good thing” and Our Promise is to “serve the best pizza and make your day a little better.”
(A): How do you look at the competition? How has it benefited you?
(J): “Our competitors are really the ‘mom and pops’ which represent a large percentage of the pizza industry. I believe this is because people are loyal to the ‘owners’ that they know, who live down the street and are working hard to serve their community. Just like us, which is why we believe in franchising. We started as a mom and pop and are now a father/daughter, so we respect the businesses of our local owners. I don’t believe competitors are a threat. I believe they make us better by making sure that we are doing our best every day to deliver on Our Promise to our customers. Competition is healthy and we believe there is a share of stomach for pizza that is beyond each one of us. As long as we are all doing business with the right intentions, we all contribute to the greater well-being of our neighbors.”
(A): What do you think is the reason behind the success of Donatos?
(J): “I believe our people are the contributing factor to our success. They have continued to live out Our Mission and Our Promise even in the most uncertain times. The foundation of our growth continues to be traditional restaurants developed by new and existing franchise partners. We are also expanding across the US with several non-traditional offerings including our partnership with Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, sports venues, airports, other hosted facilities, and a new partnership involving REEF ghost kitchens. Our core product has not changed since the inception, but we have expanded our offerings to be more health-conscious with cauliflower crust and plant-based toppings.”
(A): What was the most challenging aspect of franchising Donatos? How did you handle it?
(J): “Originally, the hardest part of turning the business over was allowing someone else to use the name Donatos. We dealt with it by creating solid processes, which gave us confidence that the product would be consistent. To support new franchise partners, we provide them and their management teams an extensive training process in a current Donatos restaurant before ever opening their own location. Then, a Promise Team of current Donatos associates helps train the rest of the new staff before and during the first weeks of opening at a new location. The franchise partner also has a franchise business consultant and a field marketing manager assigned to them to help support them from the beginning and then ongoing through daily operations. We have a great financial model with systems and processes that allow our franchise partners to spend time building the business and ultimately giving back. We look for people who believe in Agape Capitalism – doing business based on love, servant leadership, and giving back to the community. We believe it is bigger than the pizza – it is the people, our neighbors, and our community. We believe in prosperity for the franchise partner, the associates, and the community in which we do business.”
(A): What qualities do you seek in a franchise partner?
(J): “We spend a lot of time in the selection process to make sure that we are selecting the right people to become franchise partners. It has been imperative that we select franchise partners who are aligned with our values. We refer to our franchise system as partners instead of franchisees because we believe in a partnership for prosperity. Qualified candidates have business acumen and previous business or management experience, a commitment to treating guests and associates with the highest ethical standards, a desire to be involved with the local community, a passion for the foodservice industry, and a desire to be involved in daily operations. Our expectation of our franchise partners is that they will run the play by using the playbook and tools we’ve developed with proven results to help drive their business. We expect them to be visible and heavily involved in the daily operations and that they will help instill the Donatos culture in the restaurant and with their associates. We also expect them to be involved in giving back to their community.”
(A): Finally, where does Donatos go from here?
(J): “Our growth is really our most exciting project. Our partnership with Red Robin just recently surpassed the number of traditional restaurants that we have as we have doubled our reach in just two years. This allows us to offer franchising opportunities across the country for the first time in our history. We are excited about the potential to bring our pizza to more and more people and communities coast to coast.”
For more information about franchising with Donatos, visit donatospizzafranchise.com.