This article was originally published in The Columbus Dispatch on December 22nd, 2023.
The race is on in Concourse C at John Glenn International Airport. You’ve made it through check-in, cleared TSA screening, got your shoes back on and are ready for your flight to board.
There’s just one last thing: Will you get your pizza before they call your row?
It’s a pre-flight ritual for many flying out of Columbus — so much so that the airport’s two Donatos restaurants rank among the chain’s top performers in both net sales and transactions. In Concourse C, where Delta flights take off and land, and in Concourse A, where Southwest flights come and go, the 60-year-old purveyor of Columbus-style pizza offers travelers one last taste of home before flying off to lands where the pizza’s probably less saucy, more bready and the pepperoni isn’t edge-to-edge.
“Those that don’t live here anymore and are just visiting — they’ll get it on the way in and the way out,” said Robert E. Lee III, the owner-operator of both airport Donatos. “We’re local and loved.”
It's a busy week at the airport, not just for the airlines and passengers but for pizza-makers as well. Nearly 400,000 people will fly in and out of Columbus for the holidays before Jan. 2. Thursday and Friday before Christmas are expected to the single busiest days of the season, said Sarah McQuaide, spokesman for the Columbus Regional Airports Authority.
Lee said his 45 employees will be ready. The Donatos at John Glenn International open at 6 a.m.; a breakfast pizza and breakfast sandwich were created at the request of airport officials. The restaurants close 30 minutes after the last flight each night.
The breakfast items that are served nowhere else in the chain include scrambled eggs, hollandaise sauce, provolone cheese and a choice of ham, bacon or sausage. Bartender Jeffrey Steen's Bloody Mary comes with pizza sauce added to its tomato juice.
The rest of the restaurants’ pizza, sub and salad menu mirrors other Donatos, with a couple of big differences. Pizzas are only sold in 7-inch individual and 12-inch medium sizes, and drinks are only sold in 20-ounce bottles. (A 10-inch cauliflower crust is also available.)
Prices are higher at the airport, as well: $7.89 for a 7-inch and $19.29 for a 12-inch, compared to $5.89 and $13.39, respectively, at the Donatos nearby on North Cassady Avenue.
Lee gets many requests, including to sell the pizzas frozen so customers can bake them once they get to wherever they’re headed. That was usually asked of snowbirds headed to Florida before the chain opened restaurants in Jacksonville, Orlando, Sarasota and Naples.
More common now, he said, is this scenario: “Someone will come by to get a pizza. They’re really pressed for time, but they really want a pizza. They’ll go ahead and order, and our team says. ‘Go, go, and I’ll bring it to you.' ”
“We’ll take that pizza, and we’ll shoot it down there. It’s not uncommon for us to run a pizza to the plane itself.”
Mo Stemen gets it. Donatos has expanded as far west as Oklahoma, but it has yet to reach Los Angeles, where she has lived since 2007. The Lancaster native grew up in a house divided — Cristy’s Pizza vs. Donatos — but she says she was and still is Team Donatos.
So much so that she bought a pizza bag just to store and carry the two or three mediums she buys most every time she departs CMH after a visit home.
“Before, I MacGyvered ways to carry it and keep it flat,” she said. “I figured the bag could only help the situation.”
Stemen calls herself a pizza purist and orders pepperoni every time. She allots herself a certain number of pieces en route, usually eats some the next day “like a travel hangover cure,” and freezes the rest.
“Truly, I always mean to share it and I absolutely never do,” she said.
Whether you order pizza or something else to eat at the airport, chances are you’re being fed by Lee. The founder and president of a 14-year-old company called Touchstone Hospitality is a partner in 13 other restaurants in John Glenn International. The Detroit native has spent nearly 40 years in the hospitality industry, including hotels and restaurants.
“You won’t find a better restaurateur than Robert, because for him, it’s always all about the people — his team, his customers and the community,” Donatos CEO Tom Krouse said of the company’s former franchise partner of the year.