By Rick Hynum

For Mark Ulrey, vice president of marketing and purchasing for Flyers Pizza & Subs, partnering every year with the nonprofit Autism Speaks isn’t just good business. It’s coming from the heart—literally and figuratively.

Founded in 1976 and boasting 10 stores, Flyers is an employee-owned company and, safe to say, a beloved institution in the Columbus, Ohio region. For the past 12 years, Ulrey and his management team have been running a fundraiser called “Give a Pizz-a Your Heart to Autism Speaks.” Ulrey hopes to see other pizzerias become involved with the nonprofit, which advocates for and serves individuals with autism and their families.

“Obviously, it could be any charity, but we picked this organization because I personally know what it’s like to wake up every day with a child with autism,” Ulrey told PMQ. “These families need every break that they can get, and the organization provides services for these individuals.”

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Ulrey followed in the footsteps of his dad, Wayne Ulrey, founder of Flyers Pizza & Subs, and joined the family business. But his own son, who turns 29 next month, doesn’t have that luxury, due to the challenges posed by autism and the intense, high-pressure demands of pizza restaurant work.

In 2016, the Ulrey family sold Flyers to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and it became 100% employee-owned. It has remained the kind of hometown pizza brand that embeds itself deeply into each community it serves. In the past year alone, Flyers stores have hosted build-your-own-pizza parties for local kids, participated in Earth Day community clean-up events, donated pizzas and packed “Buddy Boxes” for children facing food insecurity, and shown their support for schools’ sports teams, reading programs and a Columbus hospital’s Hope Garden, an outdoor area where staff and patients can spend a little quiet time when they need a break.

The “Give a Pizz-a Your Heart to Autism Speaks” campaign starts each year in the third week of January and runs until shortly after Valentine’s Day. Flyers promotes its heart-shaped pizzas to customers in-store and on social media and, for each pie sold, donates $2.50 to Autism Speaks. “We even double that amount on certain Tuesdays as well,” Ulrey noted.

“It has evolved into a very successful event, with 2024 being our top year of donations— totaling over $13,000,” he added. “There, of course, is an investment in creating a new box and marketing it through social media and direct mail. But we now have families [for whom] it’s part of their culture now to get a heart-shaped pizza during Valentine’s week.”

The promotion raises funds and awareness for Autism Speaks and boosts Flyers’ sales, too. “This time period has been turned from a down time, sales-wise, to very profitable as families are buying more than just the pizza,” Ulrey said.

Obviously, heart-shaped pizzas are a hot-ticket item during the Valentine’s Day season, but fundraisers for autism research and support could easily work anytime during the year—and with any specialty pizza on the menu.

For Ulrey, what really matters is getting his fellow pizzeria operators on board with the cause. He said he wants to “get other pizza shops involved in possibly working with Autism Speaks or any other charity organization that they desire to help their communities.”

“It’s truly a win-win for all parties,” he adds. “We have customers that come to us because we raise money for this cause.”

If you want to implement a similar promotion or get your pizza restaurant or chain involved with Autism Speaks, contact Mark Ulrey via email at

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