The Story of a Small Pizza Shop: Donatos Pizza, more than 50 years later, still plays by the same rules

Last year, Donatos Pizza led the fast-casual pizza category in sales growth, experiencing the highest unit growth in the segment, according to the research firm Technomic. Today, at a time when a number of pizza concepts are jumping into the category, the Columbus, Ohio-based chain, widely recognized as one of the original fast-casual pizza players, is looking to expand its national footprint in 2015 and beyond.

“We are growing in geographic regions in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, working out from our core versus crisscrossing the United States,” said Tom Pendrey, COO of Donatos Pizza.

The Donatos story began in 1963 when Jim Grote, an Ohio State University sophomore at the time, paid $1300 for a small pizza shop on the south side of Columbus. Loosely translated from the Latin, Donatos means to “give a good thing.” That name fit Grote’s philosophy perfectly: create a superior product, hire great people, and “treat others the way that I would like to be treated.”

In just a few years, Grote built his first free-standing Donatos restaurant across the street from his original location. In 1999, McDonald’s Corp. identified Donatos as the gold standard of the pizza business and purchased the company as a way to diversify into the pizza business. Four years later, when McDonald’s wanted to focus on its core brand, the fast food giant sold Donatos back to the Grote family.

Today, the family-owned company, and America’s original Edge to Edge® pizza company, remains a favorite throughout Ohio and beyond, with 153 locations in six states.

Donatos enables franchise partners to locally introduce a new brand that incorporates 50 years of experience. “We are not a household name outside of Ohio, even though our Chairman’s appearance on the hit CBS show Undercover Boss introduced our concept to millions across the country,” Pendrey added. “There’s a boutique aspect to Donatos—we aren’t perceived as, nor do we operate as, a big chain.”

To augment the company’s growth, Donatos is looking to bring on new franchise partners with senior or executive management experience, including P&L management, a commitment to exemplary customer service, and a passion for their local community. To qualify for a single unit, candidates must have a minimum of $100,000 in liquid assets and a minimum net worth of $500,000. Operators of three or more units must have $200,000 in liquid assets and a net worth of $850,000. Franchise opportunities are available in most markets east of the Mississippi River, especially Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio, as well as Texas.

New franchise partners may attend up to 4 weeks of comprehensive training, while their general managers and assistant GMs receive 12 weeks of training. Each franchise partner is assigned a business consultant and a field marketing manager to assist them with driving customer traffic.

Donatos’ local marketing is based on the concept of being “Best on the Block.” “We have an in-depth knowledge of our customers,” Pendrey says. “Our online ordering software has been recognized as the premier system in the industry. We track trends and taste preferences to introduce new products that complement our core items. We’re right on the edge of what customers are demanding.”

Donatos average annual unit volume is particularly high at $932,600, showing that the strategy pays off.

For more information about franchising opportunities with Donatos Pizza, visit