By Colin Foster
TROY — Donatos Pizza owner and chairman Jane Grote Abell looked the part of a “rockabilly” when she appeared on an episode of “Undercover Boss” Oct. 11, 2013.
“I was an old rockabilly. Rockabilly is cool if you’re 20 … but rockabilly at 47 isn’t quite as cool,” she said with a laugh.
But Grote Abell had no tattoos, nose rings or glasses on when she visited the area on Jan. 21. She and her business partners traveled around to several Donatos Pizza establishments in celebration of the restaurants’ 20th year in the Miami Valley.
The first stop on their trip was the Troy location. Once she arrived, Grote Abell was more than happy to take a half hour to talk to the Troy Daily News about the history of Donatos, her experience on the CBS reality television show “Undercover Boss,” and Donatos’ upcoming Donate Life campaign which will launch on Feb. 11.
Miami Valley is a “strong market” for Donatos
Donatos Pizza — the creator of the Edge to Edge Pizza — is celebrating its 20th year in the Miami Valley.
The Troy store was established in the summer of 1994. The location of the restaurant has changed since then. It used to be tucked away off the main drag at 50 S. Dorset Road, but since has moved to a prime location right on the edge of downtown Troy, on 414 W. Main St.
“It’s a much bigger restaurant on a better corner. People can see where it is, unlike the last location,” said Todd Rogers, a local Donatos franchise operator. “It’s a perfect location, lots of parking, lots of dine-in area … on a Friday night, there’s standing room only in here.”
Rogers described Donatos’ business in the Miami Valley as “very strong,” and added that the Troy location saw record numbers on the weekend of the Gentlemen of the Road Stopover Tour last summer.
“(That weekend) was insane,” he said.
On top of that, Rogers added that since moving to the new location in Troy, Donatos’ sales have doubled in volume.
Grote Abell said that the Miami Valley was one of the strongest markets for Donatos.
Ohio-based company expands to seven states
Donatos Pizza, a Columbus-based company, was founded by Jim Grote in 1963. The business is still family-owned and operated and its headquarters are located in Columbus.
According to Donatos website, Jim Grote started the company with a simple philosophy in mind: “To make the best pizza and to treat others the way I would like to be treated.” The company’s philosophy is still the driving force behind the business today. Grote purchased the small pizzeria on the south side of Columbus in 1963 for a price of $1,300. From the beginning, Grote, then a sophomore at The Ohio State University, based the company on three fundamentals: creating a superior product, hiring great people, and adhering to strong principals that promote goodwill in business and the community.
It took Donatos nearly 25 years to finally branch out and expand. Grote wanted to ensure consistency in the quality of pizza at each and every Donatos location. Over the years, Grote was able to develop a system for making each pizza the same as the last.
Today, Donatos and its franchise partners operate close to 200 restaurants in seven states (Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia).
There were, however, some bumps in the road for the company along the way.
In 1999, Donatos was purchased by McDonald’s, as the company was looking to branch out into different areas other than fast food. But in 2003, when McDonald’s’ stock hit an all-time low, rumors surfaced that all the Donatos stores would be closed. Grote Abell led the charge in buying back Donatos from McDonald’s.
“After that, we got our concept back to who we are, and then we started expanding,” said Grote Abell, daughter of Jim Grote. “We had a little bump in the road, but it was a great experience when we got through it.”
Now 50 years later, Donatos is stronger than ever and beginning to tap into new territory.
Grote Abell and Donatos made headlines after the episode of “Undercover Boss” aired in October.
She spent roughly an hour-and-a-half in makeup every day for 13 days of filming, and visited four different Donatos locations, one in Virgina and three in Columbus, to find out what was happening within the company.
“I think the overall experience I walked away with was how great our people are, honestly,” said Grote Abell. “Everybody has a story; people come to work every day with a smile and passion for what we do, and a love for the business. I learned how truly that restaurant becomes family to so many kids, to adults, it becomes their second home.
“That was very rewarding, because that’s what we’re all about as a family business. Whether it’s a franchise or a company store, it is about the family.”
“Undercover Boss” is an Emmy Award-winning reality show that follows high-level corporate executives as they slip anonymously into the rank-and-file of their own companies, according to the CBS website.
Grote Abell described it as a “life-changing experience.” She came to find some positives and negatives within the company, and even discovered some unsung heroes in the process. Donatos’ upcoming Donate Life campaign is actually inspired by Kanisha Dumas, a Donatos employee, who’s story touched Grote Abell during the filming of the show.
What made headlines, however, the story of a delivery driver (named Aaron), who confessed to Grote Abell that he occasionally smoked marijuana on the job. From the moment she met Aaron, Grote Abell was impressed by his work ethic, describing him as “perfect picture of what a delivery driver should be” … but on the final delivery of the night, Aaron dropped the bomb shell on the Donatos’ executive, which caught her completely by surprise.
Aaron was fired at the end of the show, but given the chance at redemption. Grote Abell said if he could pass a drug test in 30 days he would be welcome to return. Grote Abell said she had to let him go, but believed he deserved a second chance.
At this point, Aaron has taken four drug tests and passed them all. Grote Abell gave him the option to take six tests, and if he comes back clean in each one, Donatos will pay for Aaron’s final year at Ohio State.
“He’s doing well,” she said. “He’s thinking about going into management.”
Grote Abell said she has had positive and negative feedback since the show aired. She actually put together a book for her dad at Christmas with all the comments they received that were posted on Facebook, Twitter, the company website and through email. She added most of the feedback they got was related to the “driver incident.”
Donate Life through Donatos
DAYTON — Donatos and the local Donate Life affiliate, Life Connection of Ohio, have announced a promotional partnership to register organ, eye, and tissue donors. The program kick-off on Feb. 11 and continue through Mar. 9.
When Grote Abell was featured on a recent episode of “Undercover Boss,” she was told by Donatos associate Kanisha Dumas that she wears a green Donate Life bracelet in honor of her brother Taylor. He was a tissue donor when he died on Feb. 11, 2011 while playing basketball. Moved by Dumas’ story and her passion for sharing Taylor’s legacy, Grote Abell pledged to keep his memory alive by publicizing the Donate Life message and offering green bracelets to customers of Donatos restaurants.
“Donatos is humbled to lend our support to a cause that is so vitally important in every neighborhood that we serve,” Grote Abell said. “Likewise, we are honored to keep alive the legacy of Kanisha’s brother Taylor.”
“Our mission is to promote goodwill, and this is just one of the ways we do it. I mean, Todd does it in his stores all the time in his stores with different promotional programs, we do it with different programs in Columbus,” said Donatos spokesman Tom Santor. “This was one that people saw on the show and it really reaches everybody, and it’s a nationwide issue, not a local issue, so it makes a lot of sense for us to do it.”
The four week promotion will feature Dumas’ story on merchandising materials along with Donate Life informational and registration brochures. In addition, customers who donate a dollar will receive a green awareness bracelet. Proceeds will benefit organ, eye and tissue donation educational efforts in the local community.
“It’s giving life through life … it was really passionate for her and brought awareness to us as an organization, as well,” Grote Abell added. “She’s an incredible young lady; she’s breaking so many cycles, so our gift back to her was to really help raise awareness.”
Colin Foster may be reached at 937-440-5208 or followed on Twitter @colinfosterbg or @Troydailynews