Executive Insights | August 2010 | By Blair Chancey

Stay True to You

The secret to Jason’s Deli’s success is its positive, family focused culture, says the company’s CEO Joe Tortorice.

How can growing concepts move into franchising while still maintaining their core identity?

I can tell you how we did it at Jason’s Deli. We’re operationally intensive. In other words, we’re first and foremost operators. So most franchises have only a handful of company-owned stores and the majority of the stores are franchised. We’re unlike that. And with that in mind we set out not looking for investors, but looking for people who had restaurant backgrounds or people within our company already who could acclimate and internalize our culture. And the franchisees that we brought on board are just that. They’re part of our family. Those who came from industry wanted to come into a smaller system where they could have more latitude and still operate under the umbrella of a larger company. It’s worked beautifully for us.

What kind of advantages has being a family-owned business allowed you?

The main advantage is that we’ve been able to take this family culture and spread it throughout an entire company. It’s not a power-driven company. The key professionals in the company are also my friends, and I think that comes from the family atmosphere. Pardon the expression, but families aren’t power-driven, they’re love-driven. It sounds trite, but that’s what we’re built on.

That sounds great, but does being a family company present any challenges?

Well on Sunday afternoons when we’re sitting around the kitchen table, we’re not talking about the latest NFL game, we’re talking about business. But it’s a good thing. There’s no separation between time off and time on. There’s no separation between family and business time. It’s our lifestyle. Naturally when you’re in an organization you have situations where the leader has to be assertive at times. So we have some little sit-downs and talk-throughs. For the most part it’s been a competitive advantage for it to be a family business.

How exactly is being a family owned business a competitive advantage?

Because we’ve been able to instill that positive culture throughout the company. And that goes back to your first question of how do operators keep that culture when they grow. The way we do it is by basing everything on our core set of values. We uncovered these; we didn’t hire a company to tell us what would be nice values to have. Over the years we’ve determined that these are the values we stand for. We have preached and taught those core values throughout the system on a continuous basis. That’s formed the foundation for us, and then we’re constantly searching for feedback to see how we’re doing relative to those core values—in both metrics and anecdotes. If we find we’re off track, we get more focused on one particular region, deli, or professional.

What do you do with people who do not blend well with the culture?

If someone doesn’t acclimate to your culture or acts out of line from what your core beliefs are, you actually don’t have to let them go. They just eject themselves. I’ve seen that on a number of occasions. If they don’t fit, they’re unhappy and they move on anyway.

Jason’s Deli’s growth has been extremely calculated. Why did you choose to not be more aggressive?

We’ve watched companies outpace themselves countless times. One thing we’ve really looked at more than anything else, is we’re going to only grow as we have people to grow with. Our growth isn’t mandated by some analyst on Wall Street. It’s not mandated by a bank. It’s not mandated by anyone. We’re going to grow only when we feel we can grow. That has allowed us to be affective and to put our leadership in positions that facilitate our growth.

What’s an example of a time when you waited for the right people?

When we jumped into the Chicago market a few years ago, but we didn’t hire all our mangers from Chicago. We brought our own people in. We brought them from Georgia and Texas. And they were people who were already in our culture. As a result, our culture spread pretty easily up there.

What advice would you give an owner who is exploring the option of franchising?

The temptation is always there to grow too quickly. The business cemetery is full of those concepts, because they grew without adequate capital, competitive advantage, or leadership. Anyone of those three can take you down. It’s a minefield out there. You need to keep all three in balance. And if you don’t, you’re outta here.