Jane Grote Abell speaks about her time at Donatos.

Donatos gives a good pizza, and a good presentation

Austin Ambrose
November 28, 2016

Donatos Pizza exemplifies the meaning of their name—to give a good thing—not only through their food, but through their commitment to dignity and respect to their customers and communities, a founding family member told a group of Ohio University students recently.

Jane Grote Abell, Chairwoman of the Board for Donatos Pizza, spoke to over 200 attendees to the Center of Entrepreneurship’s event, “The Missing Piece: Doing Business the Donatos Way,” about her journey with the growth of the company. Grote Abell provided the keynote address in honor of Women in Entrepreneurship Day, part of Ohio University’s celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week.

Grote Abell’s father, Jim Grote, began his career in the pizza industry at the age of 13. He purchased his first shop in 1963 in the southern part of Columbus when he was a sophomore at Ohio State University.

Grote saw the effects of a business owner who didn’t treat people with dignity and respect, so this became the foundation to his business. The family lived out this mission in the early years of the business by opening their home to the customers.

“A customer would buy a pizza and dad would tell them to go back and say hello to the family,” Abell said. “They would come back and share their stories, and some would end up staying all night. It really turned the community into a family.”

In an early attempt to expand, Grote started a couple of more shops, but quickly shut them down when he began to receive complaints that it wasn’t as good as the original. Grote stuck to his mission of treating the customers with respect, and refused to open another shop until he could figure out how to keep the pizzas consistent — a focus they still have today.

“We have a contract with our customers that every pizza you eat will taste the same as the very first one you had at Donatos,” Grote Abell said.

In true entrepreneurial spirit, Grote worked to solve the problem of cutting consistent slices of food for their pizzas, and use the same amount of ingredients. He ended up designing a patented machine, which propelled him to create the Grote Company.

The growth of the business attracted an offer from McDonald’s to acquire the company. At the time, Grote Abell had been working as the chief people officer for Donatos. She continued this role through the acquisition, as well as others, but also learned the difference between a corporate and family business.

Familiar sentiments no longer existed in the administration of the company, and Grote Abell had to learn how to maneuver through the new space. It was during her four years with McDonald’s that Grote Abell developed her “4C’s of Success.”

Grote Abell noticed that she no longer acted in a way that was true to her beliefs. Her actions were not matching what she knew to be the true mission. She compromised her character to fit with the new culture.

“Live your character and be true to who you are,” Grote Abell said. “Find that business that aligns with you. Don’t make yourself change for them.”

Not only did her character become unrecognizable, she also lost her courage. Grote Abell was no longer comfortable making mistakes, taking risks and being curious. Her biggest loss was her courage to voice her opinion. She began to play the game, putting on armor on before going to work every day.

Finally, she decided to return to compassion as a central factor in the work. Like her father decades earlier, Grote Abell knew how important is was to treat others with respect and dignity, as well as being honest and giving love.

“The kindest thing you can do for people is telling them the truth,” Grote Abell said. “If you do that without love or compassion, you’re just being brutally honest.”

Wanting to take the company back into family hands and returning to their core, Grote Abell and Grote decided to buy their company back. They believed in their company and their people, and went back to the simple mission of serving the best pizza. Once back to the essence of Donatos, the company was able to achieve its five-year plan in one.

“Every piece is important,” Abell said. “This is the belief we have at Donatos.”

Ohio University’s second annual Women in Entrepreneurship Day was part of Global Entrepreneurship Week, which is celebrated in 160 countries and sponsored on campus by the Ohio Women in Business, TechGROWTH Ohio and the Center for Entrepreneurship, a partnership between the College of Business and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.