Donatos was founded in 1963 when my father, Jim Grote, bought a small pizza shop in Columbus, Ohio, as a sophomore at Ohio State University for $1,300 from a young seminarian. Growing up, my dad was advised to be tough in business and nice at home. However, he knew that when he started a business of his own that he was determined to stray from that outdated idea and choose a new path: to treat others the way he wanted to be treated and to lead with love in every decision that was made.
Sixty years later, Donatos continues to live out Our Promise to serve the best pizza and make your day a little better, all from those humble beginnings on the south side of Columbus to now over more than half the U.S. with 429 locations serving Donatos pizza in traditional restaurants, sports and entertainment venues, one REEF Kitchen, and a partnership with Red Robin that continues to grow. Dad’s insistence on serving a consistent outstanding product and doing business in a way that has become known as Agape capitalism has propelled our brand to tremendous success and the ability to give back in the communities that we serve in a very meaningful way.
Since getting involved in the family business, I have served in many different roles at Donatos over the years. Currently, I am the Executive Chairwoman of the Board and Chief Purpose Officer for the brand. In addition, I am an ambassador for the brand and responsible for the overall strategic direction of our almost 60-year-old family-owned company. As an author and expert in the field of culture, I have frequent opportunities to speak at both industry conferences and universities. In 2015, I released my first book “THE MISSING PIECE: Doing Business the Donatos Way,” the story of a classic American family business which includes an in-depth account of my lifelong education in leadership, authenticity and running a values-based business.
Along with serving our high-quality food like our famous Edge to Edge pizza and providing top-tier customer service, community giveback is deeply rooted in the Donatos business model. I developed a passion for business and community at a very young age that later led me to having a strong hand in developing Donatos’ philanthropy. One of my proudest career moments was helping to raise $14.5 million to renovate the building and $6 million for an endowment for a center that strives to lift people out of poverty. Known as the Reeb Avenue Center, this building in Columbus, Ohio, houses 14 non-profits with a focus on education and workforce development so that those in need can access the resources they require to thrive.
As Donatos continues to innovate, our philanthropy has followed suit, which led me to spearhead the launch of the Donatos Family Foundation: Love Our Neighbor in 2022. In an effort to become the first billion-dollar pizza company that gives more than it receives, we started this foundation to offer families life-changing opportunities through partnering with national and local organizations who represent three core charitable pillars: housing, hunger, and health. I’m proud to say that we already raised over $100,000 since launching earlier this year for the housing pillar alone, and I look forward to continuing to make a difference in both business and the community through Donatos.
What was your first job?
My first job was working along with my grandma and grandpa to make our pizza dough. I was 11 years old at the time, but since it’s a family business I was allowed to work at that young age.
What’s your favorite menu item at Donatos?
I will always love our original pepperoni pizza topped with 100 pieces of crispy heritage pepperoni, aged smoked Provolone, and Romano on our famous thin crust covered Edge to Edge. I also love our cauliflower crust pizza with any topping.
What’s your favorite cuisine aside from pizza?
Is there any other cuisine? Pizza has been at the center of my family and brought so many communities together, so it holds a special place in my heart that no other cuisine could fill.
Who inspires you as a leader?
Our restaurant associates and managers inspire me every day with their hard work and dedication to making each community we serve a better place. Additionally, our teachers and healthcare providers who just kept showing up and leading with love over the last two years despite all the challenges the pandemic brought really motivate me to be the best leader I can possibly be. They are the backbone of our communities and excellent role models.
What’s the best piece of advice that other restaurant executives should hear?
Find your purpose first and never let your plans become bigger than your purpose. Plans change but your purpose is your real power.
What are some of your interests outside of work?
It doesn’t feel like work when it’s a family business, so most of my interest is building our legacy by having our third generation join the Donatos team. When I’m not doing that or making pizzas, my interest is working with our non-profit, the Reeb Avenue Center. Our mission at Reeb is to transform a community with workforce development and education.