When a pizza chain and a burger chain join forces, the earth might not tremble, but fans of classic Americana cuisine are sure to take notice.

Donatos Pizza, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, based in Englewood, Colorado, began testing an innovative combination of their family-friendly concepts in 2018. Today, Donatos has 248 stores nested in Red Robin restaurants, with more to come.

“It’s been a success for us and for them,” Jane Grote Abell, Donatos’ executive chairwoman, told PMQ in March 2023. “I think growth through venues like that is the future, although we still are going to do traditional stores.”

Related: Jane Grote Abell puts the Golden Rule into action at Donatos

“I didn’t know a lot about Red Robin until they approached us, but everything they talked about—their purpose and their values—aligned with us,” Abell said. “They talk about love, about the heart of the house. They take care of their people and the community. They truly are a great partner.”

But what was it about Donatos that caught Red Robin’s eye? In this exclusive Q&A, Jason Rusk, Red Robin’s senior vice president, transformation and business development, shared his thoughts on the relationship:

Q: There are a lot of other pizza brands Red Robin could have partnered with. Why Donatos?

Jason Rusk: Donatos has made the perfect partner for us for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the incredible flavor and premium quality meet the standards of the everyday gourmet experience we look to bring our guests through our burgers and other menu items. We also loved that Donatos is a family-owned, established brand with strong awareness but had a lot of white space across the country, giving us a strong growth opportunity without impeding their restaurants and core business. Lastly, from an operational perspective, their product and cook times fit in perfectly with ours. For example, their thin-crust pizza aligns with other production times in our kitchens, meaning that a pizza wouldn’t come out 10 minutes after a burger, so we’re able to offer a great guest experience all around.

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this photo shows the exterior of a Red Robin restaurant set against a beautiful blue sky with streaks of white clouds overhead

This Red Robin store opened March 8 in Glendale, Arizona. (Red Robin Gourmet Burgers)

Q: How much pizza-eating R&D was done at the time to figure out which path to take?

Rusk: We looked at over 100 different pizza concepts in our search for the perfect partner, so there was a lot of pizza eating! In addition to evaluating taste, we validated the product quality and talked with consumers to gauge their reaction to the pizza. In the end, we determined the quality of the Donatos brand and their offering of party-cut pizza with “Edge to Edge” abundant toppings fit perfectly into our brand.

Q: Was there a financial/margin decision at play, and, if so, could you expand on that?

Rusk: Offering Donatos within our restaurants has allowed us to capture additional sales by complementing our menu of American favorites with another great item guests and families love. Why choose between burgers and pizza when you can have both? Through testing and deployment, we’ve learned that when a guest tries a Donatos pizza, they have a positive experience and frequent Red Robin more often. And because pizza is a classic delivery item, it’s allowed Red Robin to be well-positioned as the delivery environment has grown.

Q: Do only corporate-owned Red Robin stores have the ability to explore the Donato partnership, or is it also extended to franchisees?

Rusk: We currently serve Donatos pizza in about 270 company locations, and our franchisees have the ability to nest Donatos Pizza within their localized menus. Our franchisees who choose to serve Donatos are held to the same brand and quality standards as our corporate locations.

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