Beyond balloons and free samples

The Grote family never used to believe in grand-opening celebrations. Now the owners of Donatos Pizza Inc. can’t imagine opening a new location without several weeks of fanfare.

“We needed to get people to know us sooner as we started to go into places where they never heard of us before,” says Donatos’ founder and CEO Jim Grote, whose Columbus-based business has grown into a 129-store chain across six—and soon to be seven—states.

Grote also wants each community where he opens a new restaurant to know Donatos will be a good neighbor.

“They’ve been there forever,” Grote says of those living and working in the area. “We didn’t want to be an intrusion to the neighborhood; we wanted to be an asset to the neighborhood.”

It wasn’t always that way. The Grote family had to learn as the 35-year-old business grew.

“We really didn’t understand how important this was at first, and over the years we just learned to make sure that we build these relationships in every neighborhood,” says Tom Grote, company COO and Jim Grote’s son. “We used to have a lot of fear that we wanted to open up quietly because we couldn’t handle [the customer traffic]. But we put our people through a lot of training now to make sure they’re ready.”

Each restaurant begins, Tom Grote says, with “handshake marketing” about 90 days before the opening date. The managers of each restaurant make contact with community leaders to build relationships. Then, two to four weeks out, the managers also touch base with local business owners.

About a week before opening, Donatos hosts various special events, which might include:

  • A “block party” where neighbors are invited to eat at the restaurant. The special per-person prices they pay are donated to a local charity, typically a YMCA or other organization. Total donations typically range from $500 to $2,000.
  • A family night, to let parents see where their children are working. This also lets Jim Grote show off his management philosophy. “When I started to work, I was 13. I had a lot of bosses that weren’t a good influence to me,” he explains. “I said, ‘When I have my own company, I want to change this.’” So Donatos’ managers are trained to be mentors for the younger staff members, who may be in their first jobs.
  • A “pizza cutting,” Donatos’ equivalent to a “ribbon cutting,” where a 5-foot pizza is sliced into serving pieces. These events are often attended by the local mayor, city council members, politicians and business owners, who can draw local media coverage.

In all, the company usually gives away about $5,000 worth of pizza before opening each store. In addition to getting the community familiar with the new restaurant, the events help new employees get practice before opening to the public.

Success is measured, Tom Grote says, by the feedback the company receives from the events—the ideas for which often come from Donatos’ employees.

“How we judge it works is by the sheer number of people that respond to it,” he says.

The benefit “block parties” have drawn as many as 1,000 people; the family nights generally have about 50 in attendance. The pizza cuttings, which are attended by invited VIPs, usually bring in fewer than 100 guests.

The Grote family members try to attend the events whenever possible, too.

“But the real focus is on the team that’s running that store,” Tom Grote says. “They’re the ones those customers are going to see every time they come.”