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Donatos chairwoman has ‘life-changing’ experience on ‘Undercover Boss’

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Donatos chairwoman Jane Grote Abell is slated to star on 'Undercover Boss' Oct. 11 at 8 p.m.  Credit: Courtesy of CBS / Siera Hanson

Donatos chairwoman Jane Grote Abell is slated to star on ‘Undercover Boss’ Oct. 11 at 8 p.m.
Credit: Courtesy of CBS / Siera Hanson

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.”

18 comments

  1. GREGORY E STEVENS

    I just seen UNDERCOVER BOSS YOU ARE A BEAUTIFUL PERSON IM PROUD OF YOU SO MUCH DON.T EVER CHANGE

  2. This has got to be the most annoying episode of Undercover boss ever. This woman is in a word, “A princess” In spite of her assertions to having grown up in the business it’s obvious that she’s never had to worry about a paycheck.

    The woman actually expects a minimum wage worker to care as much about the company as she does. Really? try to PAY or even GET a mortgage on that.

    I’m sorry, but I have no interest in the phony epiphanies or staged grandiose gestures of faux philanthropy of a 1%’er. This was nothing more than an opportunity for free publicity. The few grand she gave the employees was cheap compared to a national ad campaign.

  3. Jane may be a 1% ER but she is not faux-anything. She is sincere, giving, intelligent, and hardworking.

  4. Jane needs to grow up and get with the times. Weed is getting more and more support and is legal in several states. I can’t stand the hypocricy of people who are fine with drinking or smoking cigaretes but go all mental over a bit of weed.
    She should be ashamed of firing a great delivery driver.

    • Weed is very dangerous and is an insidious gateway drug. Weed destroys brain cells and the will of the users to achieve. Alcohol is fine in moderation, but also has problems with daily consumption. A word of caution here: the alcohol is processed out of the body within 12 or so hours, but the effects of weed are cumulative on the brain. Weed smokers will tell you it is no more harmful than alcohol, but weed has no minimum safe level. All weed use accumulates and continues to harm the user. And, it is illegal.

  5. Jane,

    I watched undercover boss when I saw it was about Donatos. I lived in Alpharetta GA from 1998-2001 and you had a store there that we went to all the time…we loved your pizza. then one day it was gone and closed. We were so sad. I live back in NY…Westchester County and to this day we still say Donatos was the best pizza we ever had! I wish you had a store in Westchester. I see you have a store in Woodside however that is not close to me.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that your pizza is amazing and you did a great job on undercover Boss and what you did for those 3 ladies was great and giving the driver another chance was cool of you.

    I hope to have donatos pizza again one day.

    Stuart Godfrey

  6. I have worked for Donatos for a long time. I am a student and campus kid. I know the C.E.O. and know she was wrong. I know so many delivery people that are trying to get by as college students. My mom has cancer.. Her mom died of cancer… Her mom had glaucoma before they had a name for it…And marinara is not illegal.. It’s simply government regulated. Before you judge someone my dear C.E.O… You better make sure you have the whole story…If I have cancer… As it runs in my family… I’ll thank god for the relief it brought them all…because anything that eases the pain of death is a gift from God…

  7. I think this is a company that actually stand’s by their core values, they don’t just have them on a wall and ignore them. I think she did everything with class and respect for everyone involved. I myself have worked for a major top 100 company for 18 years. They have five principals by which they run their company. Unfortunately most do not follow them. I watch this show and I am in tears after every episode . I am the only female who works in production and it has not been easy, to say the least. I have given my all each and everyday, I actually believe in the principal ‘s and make use of them everyday. I have never been acknowledged for anything. I think people deserve to be acknowledged once in awhile, I’ve gave everything I had to this company, my relationships,my self esteem and in the end my health. Jane your an amazing CEO and I think if the company I was working for had more people like you, maybe I wouldn’t come home after every shift crying and feeling so upset. Maybe I could come home happy and have some sense of accomplishment everyday knowing my hard work was appreciated. Most people by now would say why don’t you just quit? The answer is because I used to have a career that I loved in the military. The environment was hostile, sexist, and full of harassment , after a sexual assault by a medical Dr, (an officer) I could not handle the constant stress and fear I was living in anymore so I put in for a voluntary release and that tore my heart right out of me. Crushed my spirit, I swore that I would never let a group of people push me out of a job again. So I have hung in there, I hung until the rope was a thread. One day it just broke and I had a complete emotional/ mental breakdown. I am on long term disability and am fighting my way back to myself. So if any managers are reading this, how about thinking about the people below you and treat them with a little kindness. Maybe they have a lot going on that you know nothing about. Maybe they don’t advertise their hardships because they are professional and they keep it to themselves. I would work for Jane in a heartbeat, for those of you lucky enough to be acknowledged at work, please appreciate it.

  8. To the responders who think she was wrong about the marijuana issue. The young man was DRIVING a vehicle after partaking. Anyone who defends that is not just wrong, but dangerously wrong. I do not doubt that if he had admitted to hitting a beer bong on duty instead of the other kind, she would justifiably had the same reaction.

    There is a time and place, and it’t not behind the wheel. I lost my oldest daughter (17) to a drunk driver three years as she was walking home from school. Please think before you try to justify such behavior.

  9. I worked for Donatos for 10 years and I have to say that Jane Grote and her family care deeply about their associate’s. She helped me out and others who worked at Donatos I was a manager at several of their stores they’re a great group of people. So if you haven’t worked for the or dont know them personally shut your mouth.

  10. She is obnoxious. I can’t stand to watch the commercials with her fake smile. I thought when I saw the earlier commercials, that her Dad was her husband. She looks WAY older than she is. But, she thinks she is just adorable.
    Also, I wouldn’t walk across the street for their pizza. The worst I have ever eaten. Tastes like cardboard.
    How about we get a real actress to do the commercial, or even her Dad. And, get her stuck up little attitude off of there.

  11. I just saw the episode of Undercover Boss, and it was enlightening, to have the CEO of any company go in and work like the staff they hire, and find out first hand the real world in which most minimum wage personal have to live and deal with the public. I for one, applaud the certain effort that Jane awarded those individuals who are the face of the company in which Jane is handsomely paid. Jane really didn’t have to do any thing but she did. The pot issue, with any company is pretty straight laced, its a liability. If that driver would have been impaired enough to have an accident, all companies insist on a drug test these days, but who would pay for the accident, the company, and pay big time, not to mention the bad publicity. I only wish larger companies like Wal Mart would pay attention to do right by their workers, it could change a lot of negative press if they would. Any way, Kudos to you Jane, its sounds like you might be right on track for your employees. It’s 8 + hours out of a 24 hour day, that has a profound affect on most people, and its good to see some people really do “love their jobs” , smile and are happy.

  12. She is the worst of the worst undercover bosses I’ve ever seen. She is not a people person, she makes her staff cry. She is the most inept person I’ve ever seen on Under Cover Boss. What a wretch. Also dole type of person. Lynn Adams call me anytime, it’s your Absolutely worse boss show I’ve ever seen. She pays them squat. she is horrid This has turned me off to your show, this woman is wretched.
    ;;

  13. The only problem I have with Undercover Boss is that each business that is featured only selects a few workers to help “dramatically” change their lives. Thousands of other workers within these companies could use the help as well; however, their stories will never be known so they get nothing.

    As far as those that put down Jane and call her a “Princess” and say she looks old enough to be her father’s wife I have to say that sounds like a lot of jealousy. I think she looks great for her age and I believe she worked hard for everything she has today.

  14. Really enjoyed watching this episode. Well done to the Boss. She has enhanced the lives of some of her staff which is more than most people out there achieve. Some people on here talk a load of crap and ignore the Facts. Have a chat with yourself in the mirror:)

  15. This is a March 5th comment(2015)…. Miss Jane.. I mean Miss Kathy..hahahaha!!!!I just watched the show, in Michigan and I just adore you and what you did, keep up the good work in taking care of your workers, that’s most important, even the small things that you do for them will help & you’ll get the best work & participation from them for sure..Loved The Show..Bye now…

  16. Hey Wendy,I hear what you,re saying, appreciation goes a very long way, so thank you for your service, my son’s a police officer & one daughter is a Nurse & the other a customs Brocker & I must tell you they ARE NOT appreciated..,wish that was different cuz so many,many of us are SO PROUD of yall, okay.. Hang in there God knows who you are…by name at that.. Love-Ya Kiddo.. Brenda V.S.–Michigan..(2015)

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