In a family business, it’s hard to disguise yourself, but that’s exactly what Donatos chairwoman Jane Grote Abell did, going under the radar for “Undercover Boss.”
Abell said she had to be undercover to see what was really going on, both good (discovering “unsung heroes” in the company) and bad (finding out one employee smoked marijuana on the job), in the four Donatos pizza shops — one in Vienna, Va., and three in Columbus — she visited for the show. However, she said it wasn’t easy to lie to her employees.
“I’d say the hardest thing about it was I had to be deceptive,” she said. “But I think it’s obvious that if I had gone in as Jane Abell, I would never have been able to have learned what I learned.”
“Undercover Boss” is an Emmy Award-winning reality show that “follows high-level corporate executives as they slip anonymously into the rank-and-file of their own companies,” according to CBS’ website. Abell’s episode is scheduled to air Friday at 8 p.m. on CBS.
Abell said the company and its customers have always been a part of her life.
“We literally lived 25 feet behind the restaurant (when I was growing up). It’s a parking lot now but that was our house. So my dad had actually built the first store, and he didn’t build a dining room, so every night when customers came to pick up their pizzas, if it wasn’t ready (my dad) would say, ‘Go back and see Nancy and the kids,’” Abell said. “And so we would have customers in our house every single night.”
Her father started the pizza company 50 years ago, she said, after buying the rights to the name “Donatos,” which Abell said means “to give a good thing,” coming from a loose Latin translation. Starting with her father’s first store in Columbus, the franchise has expanded to seven states, with several locations centered in and around Columbus. Today, Abell and her father co-own the company, which had an estimated $157 million in sales in 2012, according to Technomic, a research consulting firm that focuses on food and related services.
Abell, an Ohio State graduate, started working for Donatos when she was 11 years old, and after graduating college, worked her way up from a manager to chairman of the company.
As a company leader, she said she weighed the pros and cons of going on “Undercover Boss” after being approached to do the show last November. She said despite any cons, she and her team were confident they would be proud of the way their employees would represent the company on air.
“But I would say we were 100 percent confident … because we have the best people in the industry, that no matter what, they absolutely were going to serve our product with integrity and absolutely would be treating our people right,” Abell said. “It was more, ‘Wow, we really get to recognize some unsung heroes and we have an opportunity to really make the company better.’”
She said going undercover and working jobs ranging from manager-in-training, to drive-up window and front counter servers, to delivery person, was rewarding because of what she saw from her employees.
“We have really great people,” Abell said. “And obviously as a family business, you want your people to treat your guests and their associates like family. And what I found was that they do. I’m really proud of our people.”
She said the experience wasn’t all positive, though. While working with a delivery driver at the campus location, she learned something that upset her.
“(Our driver) shared with me that he, when sometimes he was out, and this was months ago but, when he would be out on deliveries that customers would offer him an opportunity to partake in smoking marijuana,” Abell said. “I was shocked.”
She didn’t say what happened to the driver, explaining everyone would find out when the show airs, but called him a “really great kid.”
Despite anything uncovered on the show, Donatos executive director of brand marketing and public relations Tom Santor said it was a company decision to do the show, and the company is “anxiously anticipating” the episode.
“Having the terms of Jane’s excitement, and the people we know were on it, we are so proud of them and we’re excited to see it,” Santor said.
He echoed Abell’s sentiment of why doing the show was a good idea.
“It’s given us the opportunity to identify unsung heroes and get behind the scenes, to help associates do a better job and at the same time do a better job serving our customers,” he said.
Abell said through the experience, going undercover was vital, since Donatos is run as a family business and the company’s employees know who she is. She said the OSU campus location manager recognized her anyway.
“She looked at me and I could totally tell she knew who I was,” Abell said. “But she was wonderful and she was very discrete about it, allowing me to go about my business.”
She said while it can be hard to discern what is real from what is staged on a “reality” television show, her disguise was real.
“When you’re watching the show you’re kind of like, ‘Wow, would you really not recognize that person?’ But it totally worked,” Abell said. “I was truly undercover.”
Abell said prior to doing the show she talked to some of the company’s CEOs about the pros and cons of the show, and “every single one of them said it would be life-changing.”
She said they were right.
“It’s life-changing,” she said. “It certainly brings you back to really, truly understanding what our front line associates go through on a daily basis, and I’m so grateful for the people who represent our company because they are like family to me and they mean the world to me. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”