Donatos: From Transformation to Transition

"Pizza is more than just food; it’s a way to bring people together," Tom Krouse said when asked to describe what it is about pizza that has kept him  in love with it for so many years. "I love its universal appeal and the joy it brings to people. At Donatos Pizza, our commitment to quality and community makes our pizza special, and being a part of that has been incredibly fulfilling."

The Donatos CEO is retiring in October after 24 years and passing the torch to Kevin King, who has served as President of the brand since 2022.

Founded by Jim Grote in 1963, Donatos has grown to 468 locations in 28 states. Donatos and its franchise partners operate 178 traditional restaurants in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Florida and Oklahoma. Donatos’ products are also served in 290 non-traditional locations (276 locations with Red Robin, nine sports and entertainment venues, and five REEF Kitchens).

Krouse joined Donatos in 2000 after 18 years at Wendy’s. Before becoming President and CEO in 2010, he oversaw expansion and development of the brand’s retail division, Jane’s Dough Premium Foods. Among the brand's achievements under his guidance:

  • Company has doubled in size
  • Franchise system has grown from 10 partners to 45 partners
  • Average unit sales 60 percent higher than pizza industry average
  • Franchise satisfaction rating 13 points higher than franchise benchmark

In this interview with Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine, Krouse reflects on his time with the brand and his hope for its future. 

Why are you retiring now?

We brought Kevin on board two and a half years ago to be my successor. He has done an amazing job and the company is in a very strong position. We have a world class leadership team in place to continue our momentum. I have been in this current role for nearly a generation. It’s good to bring new perspectives and skill sets.

Tom Krouse
What were key challenges you faced in your career and what lessons did you learn?

One of the biggest challenges during my time with the company was how to grow the company from a regional brand to a national presence. Unlocking the code to grow meant understanding what franchise partners want and focusing solely on that…quality products, a culture of purpose, and a strong financial return. By doubling franchise per store profitability, our next challenge was to gain national distribution. Our partnership with Red Robin provided that.

In what ways has your background in music and marketing helped in your role as CEO?

Music contains many leadership lessons…collaborating with teams, tapping into emotions, communicating compelling messages to the organization…just to name a few. My time as a brand person has kept me rooted in the customer, their needs, and how to tap into their need for connection. Both fields reinforce the importance of storytelling and connecting with people, which has been vital in my role as CEO at Donatos Pizza.

What were your career high points?

Our 60th anniversary was a chance to reflect on how enduring our values of quality and compassion are. To see my father-in-law receive the adoration of so many was really special. I would also say getting to work with my son every day and going out to lunch with him and talking about everything including pizza are things I do not take for granted. Of course, leading a team that has doubled overall revenue while quadrupling the size of our franchise system is great.

What role has enthusiasm played in your career?

If I don’t hear laughter or meaningful debate in conference rooms in our building, I always think something is wrong. We spend so much time at work. It should be fun. It should be meaningful. It should be challenging. Bringing enthusiasm feeds all of that.

We spend so much time at work. It should be fun. It should be meaningful. It should be challenging. Bringing enthusiasm feeds all of that.

How has the restaurant industry evolved over the years and where do you see it headed?

The restaurant industry has evolved significantly with the rise of technology and changing consumer preferences. There’s a greater focus on convenience, quality, and the overall dining experience. Moving forward, I see continued innovation with new dining formats, enhanced delivery options, and a stronger emphasis on sustainability and community engagement.

What’s next for you?

While I’m retiring from my role as CEO, I’m looking forward to spending more time in other areas that I am passionate about: franchising, restaurants, music and community. I will stay on the International Franchise Association board and other local boards serving music and the arts. I'm also going to spend more time making music and helping other musicians.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a career in the restaurant business?

First and foremost, be passionate about what you do. Understand that the restaurant business is about people – your customers and your team. Embrace change and be willing to innovate. Stay true to your values and always strive to deliver excellence. Building strong relationships and giving back to the community are also crucial elements for long-term success.

What are your hopes for Donatos Pizza?

Donatos Pizza will continue to grow and thrive while staying true to the values that have made the brand so special. Kevin King is well-prepared to lead the company into the future, and I believe he will build on our family legacy of quality, community focus, and innovation. I hope Donatos Pizza remains a beloved brand that brings people together over great pizza for many more generations to come.

King, a longtime friend of the family, has a long history with the  brand, having served as VP of Development from 1990 to 2003. King’s early career was spent at Domino’s Pizza, serving in operations, then multi-unit supervision, and finally in international operations in Australia. Prior to rejoining Donatos Pizza as President in 2022, King solidified his expertise in the pizza industry at Papa Murphy’s. While serving as Senior Vice President of Operations and as Chief Development Officer, he led the strategic and tactical aspects of the successful expansion of the world’s largest take-n-bake pizza chain. King then served as Chief Development Officer at Smoothie King International for almost six years, expanding the fast-growing chain throughout the US and internationally. 

He plans to leverage the brand’s foundation and core values to expand its reach while remaining true to its heritage. Furthermore, King and Krouse have proactively cultivated a talented leadership team, ensuring a well-rounded perspective as Donatos Pizza embarks on its next chapter. 

“Tom’s leadership and counsel since rejoining Donatos has been nothing short of exceptional,” said King. “He’s been a phenomenal mentor and a true friend. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn from him and build upon his legacy. Together, with our talented and diverse leadership team, I’m excited to continue to elevate Donatos’ reputation for delicious food, strong community ties, and an unwavering commitment to our values.”

Top photo: Tom Krouse and Kevin King