As executive chairwoman of Donatos, Jane Grote Abell is carrying on a tradition started by her father, Jim Grote, who founded the Columbus, Ohio chain on an unshakable principle dating back to at least the time of Christ: the Golden Rule.
The word Donatos, in fact, means “to give a good thing.” More importantly, Grote has long emphasized to his family and Donatos franchisees that they should always give more than they take. Money’s real value, he believes, derives from the good works that you can do with it and the people you can help.
In PMQ’s March 2023 cover story, we featured Abell, her dad’s worthy successor at Donatos, and shared as much of her story as the limited space of a print magazine would allow. But there was a lot more that we just couldn’t fit in. In the following Q&A, Abell talks about the challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated pizza industry, the transformative power of franchising for up-and-coming entrepreneurs and her dad’s ongoing adventures as an inventor and innovator who shows no sign of slowing down at the age of 80.
PMQ: What kind of challenges have you experienced as a female executive in the pizza business?
Jane Grote Abell: I think I have two, right? I’m a woman, and I’m a [Grote] family member, so I automatically get a lot of the stereotypes that go along with that. I learned early on that I didn’t have to try to prove myself, that people would end up recognizing what I can bring to the table. But it is difficult. To say that it isn’t would not be an honest statement.
But there are a lot more opportunities for women now, thanks to the women that have come before us. So what I found myself doing, which I think was helpful—although I wasn’t excited about it when I was young—was joining forums with other women in leadership roles. So I’m part of a faith-based forum of 12 women CEOs. And we do have different experiences, so it’s about how do you have a voice at the table, and how do you show up? And how do you face the challenges of being a woman?
I think the most important thing women can do in business is to support each other and lift each other up. Find places that are safe to have leadership conversations about why it’s different and difficult. But it’s possible. We should never shy away from it because it is possible. It might take a little bit longer, but I think people recognize that.
PMQ: What about the challenge of being a member of the Grote family who rose to the top-level position in the family business?
Abell: Bill Rose was our CEO (during the period when McDonald’s owned Donatos). His style of leadership was different than anything I’ve ever seen. He didn’t like me very much in the beginning because I spoke my mind and I would confront him. I would follow him back into his office and share how I felt. That’s how I was brought up. My dad always encouraged us to speak up. So Bill didn’t like me at first, but then I think he started finding value in me. And when we went to buy the company back, he said to my dad, “I don’t think you see the value in your daughter. She could run this company.” And I think that was my dad’s first a-ha moment, where he said, “Oh, right!”
So I would say, get yourself in a situation where women support you, but there are a lot of great men out there, too, who will lift women up and open the doors—not literally, but also literally (laughs)—and help them find their place as well.
PMQ: Your father, Jim Grote, isn’t just a pizzeria entrepreneur. He’s an inventor, too. What has he been up to since he stepped down from his role as chairman of Donatos? It looks like he still has a lot of new tricks up his sleeve.
Abell: Yeah, he’s crazy! He’s amazing! I can’t keep up with him. So there’s Donatos, and there’s Grote Manufacturing Company, which my cousin runs, and then my dad opened the Edge Innovation Hub and Edge to Edge Pizza. He wanted to be able to invent [new technologies] on the cutting edge. He’s constantly learning and exploring.
PMQ: He invented the Peppamatic, right? How did that come about?
Abell: (In Donatos’ early days) he used to slice all the pepperoni with a paring knife. We put more than a hundred pieces of pepperoni on a large pepperoni pizza. We’re about abundance, quality and premium toppings. My dad always said it’s like a contract with a customer. If they’re going to pay for this pizza on Monday and then they get it on Friday in another state, they’re going to get the exact same pizza.
He is an inventor. If he could be anything else besides a pizza maker, I think he would have been an engineer by trade. So he would envision this piece of equipment at night and how to put the pepperoni sticks in the top, then slice it over a blade and under the conveyor comes the pepperoni. And there wasn’t anything like it. So he was a disruptor in the early 1970s. (As he was finetuning the Peppamatic), he would drag it into the restaurant to show everyone, and the springs would pop out of it, and they’d all laugh at him, and then he’d drag it back out again. But he never gave up. He was very persistent.
My grandpa was a butcher in the deli market at Kroger at the time. The deli manager told my dad he should take the Peppamatic out to the frozen pizza industry, where, back in the day, they were all still slicing and applying the pepperoni by hand on the frozen pizzas in their food processing plants. So my dad loaded up a VW bus with the Peppamatic and took it to Tony’s Pizza in Kansas. He unloaded it and demonstrated it. And they said, if you can automate it, we’ll buy it. So he hired my uncle, who was an engineer, and they automated it.
Now there are six different companies under the umbrella of Grote Manufacturing Company, and they all specialize in food processing. In addition to the Peppamatic, they have a cheese application, a sauce application, a total pizza line. They do all the peeling and cutting for baby carrots. They do potatoes, they do sandwich applications. They do a lot of conveyors. They have 23 different patents at that company.
PMQ: And now your dad has moved into robotics, right?
Abell: My brother is CEO of Agape Automation, and they’re inventing robots. My dad just invented a smart saucer for pizzas, and he’s working on a cutter and a (smart version of) Peppamatic. He has three engineers there. He’s also hired interns from Ohio State that are engineers, and they have their names on these patents with my dad, and he loves it. I meet with him once a week to talk about our business and our growth strategy, and it always comes back down to the sauce pump and how it’s working: Is it consistent, and is it helping our labor and our people?
He’s 80 this year, and he’s just as active in making sure that we have the right operating platform in order to scale our business as he ever was. He’s not running Donatos, but he’s obviously still very vested.
PMQ: How does Donatos’ franchising program connect with your family’s belief in agape capitalism?
Abell: I believe in giving people an opportunity to be in business for themselves and that (franchising) works. I’ll give you a short example. When we bought the company back (from McDonald’s), we decided to franchise our Cleveland and Cincinnati market. And in the Cleveland market, we franchised two locations to an individual that had been employed with us as a supervisor. He bought those two locations and, within months, the sales turned around, profits turned around, and he was doing great. I was visiting him—his name is Howard—and I just asked him, “What are you doing differently now? You oversaw these stores before. What’s different for you today as an owner?” And one of his drivers walked by and said, “I’ll tell you what’s different.” And he pulled money out of his pocket. He said, “This is his money.” I said, “It was my money before,” and he said, “I don’t know who you are, but I know him, and I know his kids and his family, and that’s what’s different.”
Every time you get an opportunity to be a part of people’s families in a way that helps them build their dream, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. We have many franchise partners who have been with us for 30 years. Now their kids are the second generation in the business. And that is so heartwarming to me because…it’s something that they believe in, and that makes a big difference.
So our plans are to be a billion-dollar company by 2027. Our vision statement is to build out that growth but to give more than we receive. And when we say that, we mean that being a billion-dollar company’s great, but unless we’re doing it with purpose and giving back, it wouldn’t be fulfilling who we are. So our intentions are to give back more than we receive, not just through our foundation, but also through our people.