The Donatos pizza franchise went from family-owned business to joining one of the biggest food companies in the United States and back again all within a five-year span. And now the franchise is calling on entrepreneurs who put customer service and satisfaction first to join their growing family of franchise partners.
The Donatos story begins back in 1963, Chief Operating Officer Tom Pendrey relayed during a recent interview from the company’s headquarters in Columbus, OH. In 1963, founder Jim Grote was just a 19 year old at the Ohio State University and decided he wanted to purchase the pizza restaurant where he worked while pursuing his education. Originally, Grote asked his parents for funding, but they declined, citing “this whole pizza thing is just a fad”.
Luckily for Grote and pizza fans in Columbus, his parents were wrong.
The budding entrepreneur managed to procure $1,300 and bought the restaurant where he worked, starting Donatos as a family-owned and family-run company. Fast-forward to 1999 and fast food giant McDonald’s purchased Donatos along with Chipolte and Boston Market as a strategy to diversify its portfolio. But by the time 2003 rolled around, McDonald’s board of directors pushed for focus on its core business during a time of lower than anticipated share price and sold the company back to the Grote family, who still own and run it today.
After that roller coaster ride in the restaurant business, Donatos got back to growing its business with franchise partners, Pendrey said. The company originally started franchising back in 1991 and currently has 21 franchise partners, with several more franchise restaurants planned in 2016.
Culture of Customer Service
The right type of franchise partner for Donatos is someone who shares Grote’s commitment to an excellent customer experience and treating them by the “Golden Rule”, which links back to two partners the founder worked for as a teenager.
One of the partners always ensured he gave customers the best possible product and service, piling on toppings and giving them even more than they asked for while the other partner noticeably skimped on toppings and thinned out the sauce. Eventually, Pendrey explained, not only did Grote notice this, but customers did as well. When Grote bought his business, he vowed to run it like the partner who was dedicated to outstanding customer service.
This is why Donatos wants franchise partners who are a good cultural fit with the company, the Chief Operating Officer said. They should want to serve customers the best possible product and experience, value associate contributions to the business success, have strong entrepreneurial spirit and want to engage with and give back to the communities surrounding the restaurants.
“The pizza business is highly dependent on owning your delivery area and being involved with all of your customers,” Pendrey said.
Although restaurant experience is helpful, it’s not necessary, the Chief Operating Officer said. What is necessary is a franchise partner’s willingness to buy into a system and execute a successful plan.
Part of offering the best possible customer experience is offering a great product, something Pendrey says Donatos does with its toppings that go edge-to-edge® and its sauce, meatball and sausage recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation within the Grote family. You will find over 100 pieces of pepperoni on each large pepperoni pizza Donatos serves its customers.
“We really make our product the star of the show on top of this delicious golden crust that is incredibly crave-able,” Pendrey said. “Customers also want to customize their pizza choices for their individual tastes. Donatos features many topping choices with a customer having 2600 possible combinations by selecting only three toppings.
To ensure consistency across all its restaurants, all Donatos use the same dough that is produced in the state-of-the-art baking facility located next to the corporate office. All ingredients are weighed and made according to a specific recipe. The commitment to providing fresh, hand-cut vegetables and placing the edge-to-edge® toppings on top of the cheese is also followed by all Donatos restaurants, making sure customers get the same experience whether they’re at a Donatos company owned restaurant or one of its franchise partner locations.
Brand strength and cohesiveness are key items Donatos offers its franchise partners, Pendrey said, adding that Donatos’ 53 company-owned locations give it a testing ground for new ideas.
“We know the restaurant business really well and test many initiatives in our own company stores before rolling them out to our franchise stores. We validate to ensure new initiatives truly add value and we use real data to know that they’re working,” Pendrey explained.
Training & Support
New franchise partners and their staff travel to Columbus for the initial weeks of training on how to run a pizza restaurant. The franchise also provides training in the new franchise partner’s store for two weeks with a Promise Team made up of experts who currently run Donatos restaurants.
Donatos offers assistance with site selection, building design, strategic business planning, operations excellence, marketing, preparing and executing a grand opening plan and also utilizes its own Donatos University e-learning program for both associate and management development.
Assigned field marketing managers and business consultants work hand-in-hand with franchise partners to make sure they get up and running successfully, and a Promise Fulfillment Evaluation team assesses customer service and Operations Excellence in each restaurant to ensure quality across the brand. They also provide ongoing training in all areas of the business to help the Franchise Partners grow their sales and profits.
“Franchising isn’t about giving them a playbook and saying ‘execute it’,” Pendrey said. “We must offer the right support across the business to ensure the success of our Franchise Partners too.”
In addition to Ohio, Donatos currently has locations in Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama with plans for several new restaurants in existing markets in 2016. A new company-owned restaurant is under construction in Nashville, set to open in February 2016. Other new markets with restaurants in planning phases for 2016 are located in Charleston, SC Spartanburg, SC and Ashville, NC, to name a few.
The company wants to keep expanding in the current states they’re in and has territories available in all those states. Georgia is also a prime market with many raving fans begging Donatos to build a restaurant according to Pendrey.
The company is seeking franchise partners who want to commit to opening a minimum of three restaurants.
“We would also pursue other opportunistic markets with well-capitalized partners that demonstrate capabilities to develop in larger territories,” Vice-President of Development Jeff Baldwin added.
More features that Donatos has to entice would-be business owners are its information systems, which help predetermine the expected demand for the day by individual shifts so restaurants can then prepare accordingly.
“Intuition will only help your business expand to a certain level, we’re using real data for our operations, marketing and decision making to help our Franchise Partners grow,” Pendrey said.
The franchise also features pick-up windows for people to get their pre-ordered pizzas quicker and easier, plus a corporate catering service that features a Customer Care Department with experts who can help franchise partners and guests plan large parties.
With a proven system in place, all Donatos needs is the right customer-service-oriented entrepreneurs to join the family.