• Since taking over as chairwoman of Donatos Pizza, Jane Grote Abell has been running the company with her heart as well as her head—just like her father, who founded the chain in 1963.
  • From hiring the formerly incarcerated to launching the Donatos Family Foundation, Abell carries on her dad’s legacy of “leading with unconditional love.”

Related: Donatos seeks new franchisees in North Carolina and South Carolina

When Jim Grote opened the first-ever Donatos Pizza location in 1963, he started inviting his customers to the family home—located behind the store in Columbus, Ohio—to hang out with his wife and kids. One of those kids was Jane Grote Abell, now Donatos’ executive chairwoman and chief purpose officer. And she’s never forgotten those evenings spent with the folks who kept her dad in business in those early years.

“People from the restaurant were always at our house,” Abell recalled in an interview with Family Business Magazine. “Every single night we had customers in our living room. I didn’t know other people didn’t grow up like that.”

She also remembered seeing the blinking Donatos sign from her bedroom. “Our bedroom would blink every single night,” she told Family Business Magazine. “Dad would get us from our bedrooms, and we would go late at night in our pajamas and stand under the sign. He would say, ‘One day you’re going to see Donatos around the world. But we’re only going to do it if we can do it and be the best, if we can promote goodwill and have good principles.’”

Donatos, a member of PMQ’s Pizza Hall of Fame, is a major—and innovative—chain now, with 170 traditional restaurants, plus non-traditional locations in more than 240 Red Robin stores. But Abell knows that her dad’s profound sense of community led to the company’s success today. And she remains committed to her family’s belief in “leading with unconditional love.”

As a child, Jim Grote was taught to be tough in business and nice at home. Once he started his own businesses, including Donatos, he was determined to stray from that outdated idea and chose a new path based on the Golden Rule: to treat others the way you want to be treated. His passion for serving the community even prompted the mayor of Columbus to seek his help in organizing resources to improve the city’s South Side.

Related: Donatos brings on largest minority-owned franchise partner

For her part, Abell has worked for Donatos—known for its Edge-to-Edge pizzas—since she was 11 years old. After McDonald’s purchased the brand in 1999, Abell was a major catalyst in the decision to buy Donatos back a few years later. She assumed the role of Donatos’ president in 2007, taking over her dad’s role, and then replaced him as the company’s chairwoman in 2010.

Meanwhile, she keeps working to instill her father’s values into everything the brand does. This includes:

  • Recruiting the formerly incarcerated: Donatos hires people from Second Chance, an organization that helps previously incarcerated people find jobs and improve their lives.
  • Giving nonprofits a boost: Abell helped turn a vacant elementary school into a building called Reeb Avenue Center, which houses nonprofit organizations that assist South Side residents in need. More than 90 U.S. mayors have toured the facility.
  • Establishing the Donatos Family Foundation: The foundation, launched in March, partners with local and national organizations to make food, housing and healthcare more accessible to communities in need. The foundation is currently focusing on the food pillar until August 29 by partnering with local food banks to provide communities with access to nutritious food.

In light of the Grote family’s commitment to communities, the company’s name—Donatos—makes sense. It’s a Latin phrase that, roughly translated, means “to give a good thing.” And for Abell, that doesn’t just mean donating money. It means putting in the necessary work to make a positive impact.

“I was raised watching my mom and dad model the idea of loving your neighbor and treating others the way you wanted to be treated, so our family built our giving strategy to reflect our values,” Abell said earlier this year when the Donatos Family Foundation was launched. “Giving more than we receive is woven into our culture, and continuing the Donatos family legacy of giving back supports our mission to promote goodwill through our products, principles, service and people.”

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