Kevin King Of Donatos Pizza (Ep 179)

publication date: Jan 4, 2023
author/source: Jaime Oikle with Kevin King

Kevin King


This is a great interview with Jaime Oikle of and Kevin King, President of Donatos Pizza. Join us as they discuss many aspects of the business, including building a brand and its footprint, expanding digital options, pandemic lessons, franchising, training, and more.

Find out more at Donatos Pizza and Running Restaurants.


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Digital Expansion And Franchising With Kevin King Of Donatos Pizza

We've got a great episode for you with Kevin King, who's the President of Donatos Pizza. Welcome, Kevin.

Thanks, Jaime. Thrilled to be here.

Let's do this. If folks don't know the Donatos brand, go into maybe the origin story, if you want for a little bit, and talk about the footprint that you guys have now.

Donatos is a 59-year-old brand started in Columbus, Ohio, by a guy named Jim Grote in 1963, and built the business one store at a time. As he did, Donatos has always been about really high quality, abundant toppings, started on a great thin crust pizza. We've evolved to have a couple of different crust types now. It’s a business built on a solid foundation and values. You can see some of them behind it. Jim always believed that there was a better way to do business, and that's really promoting goodwill. If you live your mission, then profits come as a result of living your mission.


Embrace your mission, and watch profits follow. Jim Grody believed in promoting goodwill, and Donatos Pizza proves it works!


He's living proof that it can happen and it does happen. The business has grown over the years. In 1999, Donatos was acquired by McDonald's and lived with them for a few years. The family bought Donatos back in 2003 and has owned it and grown it since. Now, we sit with 171 traditional Donatos stores where you might see any pizza place, but we're in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennesse, a few stores in Florida. We're opening our first stores in Georgia. We're in that corridor.

We also have a nationwide partnership with Red Robin where we are on the Red Robin menu. We sell pizza in restaurants and through third-party channels. Between Donatos and Red Robin, we are now in 27 states across the country, pretty much coast-to-coast. California, Oregon, Washington, but also North, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida as well. Coast-to-coast these days.

I love the bit about living your mission. Appreciate the quotes at the back. When I expanded, I could see them pretty good. Building the brand is such an interesting process right now. Through the changes, the last two years, COVID, digital this, online ordering, I'm sure that's a big part of your business. Talk about how you focus there, the growth that you see, digitally online ordering. What do you think?

Digital is our future. The beautiful thing about the pizza category is the guest is predisposed to digital anyway. We sit today at about 62% digital, and that has pretty close to doubled since the pandemic. It is the future. I love the opportunity. What digital really gives us is a connection with our guests because we get to know a little bit more about them. We're definitely investing in the digital side and driving transactions digitally. Same with our customer acquisition. Less print, pizza has always been a print category. You got pizza coupons, and we're definitely pushing our discounting and promotions to online because we get to better target the guests.

We know a little bit more about them. I love it. In the last couple of years, labor is incredibly hard. If we don't have to take the order, that saves steps, less mistakes because the guest puts in the order digitally, they know what's right, you know what’s right. I love the digital footprint. I love where we are, and we're driving that really hard trying to increase that piece.

Importance Of Customer Data

On the get-to-know-you piece, it's absolutely a critical piece where you get into the database, now you have their information. You can target them better. What are some things you like to do either now or in the future that you take that data and you run a special on? Is it day part? Is it customer part? Is it things they've ordered in the past? What are some things you're thinking about?

Jaime, it's all those. You can think about if I'm a guest and I only ever order on Friday nights, then I want to promote earlier in the week or lunch to them just to get an additional occasion per month or something. If I order every Friday night and I just order pizza, I don't order subs or wings or salads or drinks, then I can send them an offer so we can expand what we get from them on the menu.

If you only order at lunch, if you haven't ordered in two weeks, I could reach out to you. That's the beauty that you get from the digital guest is you just learn so much more about them, and then we can be relevant to them. They just use us for birthday parties, great. Can we know when those are? Can we remind them a birthday is coming up? Whatever it is. At the same time, you can make the guests feel special. If they always order something, you have so much greater ability to segment and push the information to those guests.

I want to ask you about birthday marketing for a second. An interview that's going to release probably for us in the next few weeks is with Dyson, and we talked about birthday marketing. In that session, I remember talking about the idea that everybody thinks the birthday is just for fine dining, that big occasion, but no. You celebrate a birthday in a month. Everyone has a birthday. Everyone orders pizza. You can use it as a special occasion. How do you guys use it?

First of all, the pizza occasion, there are three words that I think describe the pizza occasion really. It's fun, family, and sharing. It's hard to find someone who doesn't like pizza. When you throw something like a birthday, it is also all three of those. It's fun, it's family, and it's sharing. They naturally go together, and pizza is a great way to celebrate a birthday, no matter what, whether it's your birthday lunch, your birthday weekend, it's a great way to celebrate with your family. I think, in our digital and loyalty programs, we need to take advantage of the information we have from guests and birthdays. When I think of pizza and birthdays, I think they have those same three qualities: fun, family, and sharing. That's why I think they're so tied together and great for us.

I want to ping you a little bit more on the offer, when you do a birthday offer, or even when you do another promotion. Pizza is a very promotional category by its nature. What do you think? Let's stay with birthdays for a second. Is it a really strong offer compared to the $5 off of maybe an email promotion that you're doing? How do you capture that special occasion a little bit stronger?

I think you can probably go two routes. We have great dessert twists, so we could order a pizza, get free, or just free birthday twists. No other buy. Because if I'm going to order my free twists, I'm most likely going to buy something else. I think that's certainly a strong direction, but the other is family and sharing. Do I want to go on a bundled offer for a birthday party just to make it easy? Those are the two routes that I would tend to go. My favorite of those is just one of our free desserts, no obligation to buy because very few guests are just going to come in and order a free birthday dessert and no pizza, no other occasion with them.

Promotional Offers And Frequency

This is tough on me because now I'm getting hungry, and I want to eat pizza, desserts, and everything else. Let's stick with the promotional side of the business. I get emails from different brands actually quite periodically. Once I'm in their database, they're hitting me pretty frequently. How do you think about frequency? How do you mix those offers so it’s not always the same offer? Because it is a great strategy and it does definitely work in terms of getting me to do more business than I would otherwise. It stays top of mind and so forth, but how do you mix it up?

I think this is where segmenting the guests comes into play, and it's super important. What can I learn from your order history and your patterns with us? How can I get you a relevant message? If you order a cauliflower crust pizza all the time, I don't want to be sending you an offer for a regular crust because there's a reason you're ordering cauliflower. Learn what you can from the guests, make it as tailored to them as possible, and you're going to get the best results.


Segmenting guests is key. Tailor offers to their order history for the best results. Keep promotions relevant and engaging!


The last thing any of us want to do in our digital promotion is to get people to opt out. In my own email, I try to opt out to a certain number of things per week because I don't like that brand or I don't use that brand, or they send me something every day. What is it that you want out of that guest? The more you can segment and make it relevant to that guest, the better off it's going to be. We spend millions of dollars generating new guests when we have our existing guests to mind a little bit more and just remind them of who we are and how we're a part of their life, and that's super important in today's world.

New guests versus repeat guests, the marketing costs there, the acquisition costs, it's a big deal in any restaurant business. Before I go, I want to talk about the franchise business and expanding what you look for there. Before I go there, I want to ask if there are any other COVID learnings that you had. Has it really changed pickup, delivery, and curbside? Anything else, key learnings that you've seen over the last couple of years that you want to highlight?

There have been so many learnings over the last couple of years. I think the ones that are going to stick around is people really do want restaurant food in their homes, so how do we make that a great experience? The beautiful thing about pizza is how well it travels and also how good it is as a second meal or a third meal. Who doesn't like pizza the next day? I think most of us do, whether you eat it hot or you just eat it cold. It's a great second-day meal.

I think a huge thing is how do we make it a great experience for the guests, whether we're delivering to you or you're coming in, carrying out for a restaurant. I think that ties to digital. I don't get to wow you with my personality in the digital experience, but I can wow you in other ways. I can make it super awesome. Easy for me to order and the reminders of things that you may have forgotten and how to do it. How do you make that guest experience great, and how do you make your food travel as good as possible to home?

Third-party delivery companies are a part of all of our lives today. I think I want my box sealed as opposed to them being able to open it or do anything with it. Those are some of the big learnings. I think the other one is we have to take care of our people. If we learned anything in the pandemic, it is that our people are super important. We need them to come to work. When you think about the average restaurant worker, they're working out in restaurants while everybody else is at home, and we need them to be present or we are going to be out of business. That's the other part of the pandemic we definitely need to play forward with. That is how we treat, how we reward, and how we keep great people in our restaurants.


Taking care of our people is vital. The pandemic showed us how important our staff is, and we need to reward and retain great employees.


Let's stay there for a second because it is a huge topic. It comes up in almost all of our interviews, the people equation, and you just talked about rewarding them and keeping them and motivating them. Any success stories there with your staff or some of your outlets, things that people have done on the motivation side, on the reward side, and the retention side, things that you've seen work, hiring tactics to bring in new folks when you're looking for labor, anything you can share?

Staff Retention And Motivation

I want to start with retaining your people because that's the easiest part. It's just making them feel special, and making them a part of your company and part of your environment. What can you do to make their job a little better? What can you do to recognize and reward them? Money and pay are part of it, but it certainly isn't all of it. Much of it is making them feel important. Our people are important to us. Without them, we don't have a business. What can we do to make the job a little easier or make them feel important? We spent a lot of time and effort on that. We definitely address pay in our restaurants. We rolled out tip pooling, which is great because before, people working our counters made a lot of money in tips, but the guys or the gals making the pizza in the back were the ones who were just getting paid minimum wage. Tip pooling has enabled us to share the reward throughout the restaurant. I think that's been really huge.


Make the job easier and recognize efforts. Pay is important, but feeling valued matters more.


The second part of that is recruiting. Recruiting today is all about making it super simple. You’ve got to be able to recruit on your phone. If you're not on the phone, you have to figure out how you can get there. That's where people are going to go. You have to react really fast. In today's world, people are going to go out, “Today’s my day to find a job. I'm going to apply at a couple of places online. I'm hopefully going to get some type of interview, and I'm going to accept something.” You've got to be available on their time. You can't say, “I got an opening a week from Friday. Why don't I see if you can come in?” A week from Friday, they probably had ten job offers, and they’re gone. It's really about being where the potential associate or team member is, being there, and then engaging them super quick.

The second part of that is how you onboard them. We saw, even earlier this year, our new hire average number of days working was eighteen. You think of how bad that is, but you think of, we never made a connection with them. They're like, “Maybe there's something better out there.” We've been working really hard. We're now closer to 40 days. We've doubled it in a period of just a couple of months, and we know we can continue to improve on that number, but how are you engaging them and keeping the ones that you actually get?

I take a bunch of notes there. I love that stuff. You do want to increase that because finding people and then training them, it's a little hamster wheel there. You talked about making people feel important, and there are lots of ways to do that, you can imagine, whether it's a pay thing, a gift card, an award, a recognition, a thing you hang on the wall. Anything you guys do specifically? Is it team meetings where you recognize folks? What do you guys do to make folks feel important?

It's really all those things always. You have to touch them all. I think what we try to do is we have something we call our promise. We try to recognize what we call our promise in action. When a team member does something, we try to recognize that. We do that in all our meetings with our people. At the store level with associates in the stores or our office team as well, and try to recognize people as quickly as we can and talk about how they're fulfilling our promise actually made a difference to the business overall. I think so much of it is about making people feel special and important and included. That's what we try to do with our promise recognition.

Let's go to the franchising front. It’s a big part of what you do, obviously. What do you look for in a potential franchisee? What are some common traits you may have seen as a successful franchisee owner-operator? What do you think?

Qualities Of A Successful Franchisee

The biggest thing about a franchise partner, as we call them, is I think the thing that makes them successful is that they love the brand that they're joining. They love the brand because, of course, it has the numbers, I'll call it. It has a good return on investment, good sales, and EBITDA. We all need to love what we do and love selling the products that we are. We find almost all of our partners, the people who inquire with us, they love our brand. Those are the kind of partners we want to start with. Loving the brand is so important long-term to your success because you proselytize it out, you talk about it, and you help grow your business that way.

Pizza is easy. Everybody loves pizza. I've said that already. Donatos is a quality brand. It's got rich heritage and history, but it's current and hip and modern and those things too. It's easy to love. The first thing we look for in a partner is, “Why are you in this?” Almost always that comes down to, “I'm a brand advocate. I love the brand.” That's number one. Close behind that is the rest of their rationale. We look for people who have similar values. We want people who are going to live our mission, our vision, and our values, and that's so important today. It's important with Millennials, Gen-Y, and Gen-Z, is they want brands that stand for something more than just making money.


Everybody loves pizza! Donatos is a quality brand with a rich heritage, but it's also current and hip. It's easy to love.


We're looking for people who want to be a part of what our mission and values are. If we get those two things, you love the brand and you love our mission, we can teach, coach, and train the rest. We know our brand has good unit-level economics and the partner can be successful. Those, to me, are the key things, just find people who love your brand and find people who align with your mission and values.

I was going to ask you about the training piece because you can train the actual how to run the operation. What do you do there? I know it's probably standard. You bring people in a couple of weeks, you help with the opening. Anything you do outside the norm that you think really helps set people up for success? Any mentorship tips? Are there a lot of folks that have multiple locations? What does it look like?

I think that the biggest thing is immersing them in your culture, showing them that the culture can help you build and grow the brand, and it's going to reinforce your mission and values. That's why we want them to come to training more than anything else. We have a fabulous operating system. You and I could make the same pizza in about five minutes if we're in the back of the store because our operating system is so good. It's not hard. It's not complicated. It takes effort. It's repetitive.

Now, you and I could make a pizza, but the people who work in our stores could make it much faster, and long-term speed is part of it. We want to ensure quality. We want to make sure the guest gets a great piece every time, and our operating system delivers on that piece. That's something that Jim Grote, back to his founding, said, “I'm not going to build another store until I can make sure that they make the exact same pizza we do.” I love that. We have a great operating system. Those boxes are checked. The training is really about engrossing them in our culture and showing them how we bring Donatos to life in a community.

Kevin, I had a map up that showed the locations and you talked a little bit earlier about where they are. If I were to ask you the question, where are you expanding? Where are you looking for folks? Is it just nationwide? Is there anything specific? Should they go to the website? What do they do?

Expansion And Franchise Opportunities

You can go to the website, or just, and click on the franchise link. Really we're growing, if you think of 150 or so miles down Interstate I-75 on either side, is where we're principally growing today. That gives you about a twelve-state area through the Midwest and down through the Southeast part of the country is the bulk of our growth right now. Those are the primary areas.

We're interested in great people in other markets too. Our partnership with Red Robin has opened up nationwide distribution of our products, which makes our ability to support a franchise in a little bit more remote location a whole lot easier. We're primarily focused in the Eastern half of the US and looking for great talented people who love pizza, love quality products, and want to inspire some people in their stores and then promote goodwill through product, principle, and people.

I think you hit it all there. I'll give you a chance if there are any other parting thoughts you want to share about the business or again for franchise folks. Anything else? Any words of wisdom, any book you're reading right now, or any other quotes that you want to share? Any thoughts?

I think my parting shot would just be in your life, strive to find the things that you love to do because if you can love your work, it makes your life so much better. If you love pizza and love people, the pizza business is great. Give us a call, and we'd love to talk to you.

I wanted to get this out there, by the way. You said it earlier, you like pizza hot or cold, I prefer it hot the second day, by the way. Some people like it cold. I just want to get it out there. I'm a hot pizza second-day guy.

I'm glad you're a pizza guy. That's the first thing.

I'm on the record. Anyway, folks, I appreciate you being with us. That was Kevin King of Donatos Pizza. You can find them on the web at and then, which Kevin shared with you. For more great restaurant marketing, service, people, and tech tips, stay tuned to us here at We'll see you next time. Thanks, Kevin. Appreciate you.

Thanks, Jaime. Nice to meet you.


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