Donatos Takes on Automated Technology While Staying True to its Values
When Donatos Pizza founder Jim Grote founded the restaurant company in 1963, he could have never foreseen the impact his company would ultimately have. Some 170 units later, the chain has become known for taking care of its employees while also staying on the cutting edge of innovation.
Grote opened the company’s Innovation Hub in its Columbus, Ohio, hometown decades ago and, partnered with sister company Agápe Automation, has hired engineers and scientists to test out new ideas or technology for the brand.
That includes Donatos’ most recent innovations: automated machines that distribute sauce, cheese, and pepperoni on pizzas (Donatos is known for its pepperoni pizza with 100 pepperoni slices) as well as a slicing machine that can cut the pies quickly and evenly. The machines drastically reduce the time it takes to make pizzas. The pepperoni and slicing machines are being rolled out throughout the system, while the sauce and cheese robots are still in testing phase.
Tom Krouse, Donatos CEO and Grote’s son-in-law, believes the Innovation Hub and the work Grote did in creating the legacy of innovation has helped the brand thrive through obstacles like recessions and COVID-19.
“Innovation has always been a part of the fiber of who we are,” he said. “Our founder had a pickup window before anybody had pickup windows. He was kind of an innovator in that world.”
The Innovation Hub’s work to date has focused on technology and strategies that take some tasks away from busy workers and make it easier for them to do their jobs well.
“[Grote is] working with engineering students from Ohio State who don’t know anything about the pizza business,” Krouse said. “They’re away from all the daily issues that we’re dealing with. And they do a lot of ‘what ifs’ and they [don’t] say ‘there’s no answer, no, that can’t be done.’ That’s not the way they operate.”
Krouse was quick to point out that the new pizza machines are simply taking the laborious work out of the pizza production, leaving more time for the employees to focus on hospitality.
“Goodwill starts in the kitchen,” he said. “It’s the basis for what makes this brand work.”
He added that the brand is investing in success in its back-of-house operations and front-of-house, making sure the brand’s leaders have ever-important soft skills. That’s another benefit of using automation to speed up all the processes.
“If you can allow the manager to spend more time on soft skills, like caring for customers, that’s probably the No. 1 area of redistribution,” he said. “If we can spend time training our people to deal with difficult customer relations, I think that’s probably the biggest [benefit of automation].”
Donatos is also looking to disrupt the ordering experience through call centers. Krouse said that by directing phone orders to a call center rather than the restaurant itself, it relieved employees of the need to answer the phone or put someone on hold while they’re in the middle of something.
Krouse said the brand is looking toward creating a fully automated pizzeria. Earlier this year, it announced that it planned to open a pizza vending machine in partnership with robotics company Appetronix in Columbus.
Donatos’ innovation has helped it find more employees, Krouse said, because it’s eliminating many of the tasks that people on staff complained about.
Krouse points out that Donatos is familiar with the downfalls of being first to market with technology, and noted the company isn’t necessarily first with any of these innovations. Other brands like Sweetgreen and Chipotle are also in phases of testing automated restaurants.
“I like to call it leading edge but not bleeding edge,” he said. “It’s not about being first, it’s about being the best.”
Krouse is also always looking toward the future to see what’s next.
“Change really does come at you fast,” he said. “It’s like driving a race car. And I think those that pick their eyes up a little bit farther and say, ‘Well, here’s what I think is coming our way’ [do better].”