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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2005 — December — Toque of the Town

Give and Take
Lisa Tillman purges trans fats from Jason’s Deli while adding hearty hot options.

Lisa Tillman

Jason’s Ranchero Wrap, $5.50, with chicken breast, pico de gallo, cheddar cheese, jalapeo peppers and ranch dressing, is served with tortilla chips and picante sauce.

Giving guests hot options for dinner, Jason’s Deli added Chicken Pasta Primo in April, is testing pasta and meatballs, and has other pasta entrees on the way.

Jason’s best-selling sandwich is the New Orleans Muffaletta, premium ham and hard salami or oven-roasted turkey breast with provolone and house-made olive mix.

If Lisa Tillman never saw another drop of partially ydrogenated oil, it’d be too soon. “At least I won’t have to see it at Jason’s,” she says.

After five years of label scrutiny, vendor wheedling and recipe revamping, the director of product development for 142-unit Jason’s Deli has squeezed every bit of the stuff out of inventory.

“We found it in the most unexpected places, and it took a lot of work on our part and negotiation with our vendors to get rid of it all,” Tillman says. “We worked really hard to ensure flavors were just as good or better than before and to make this as transparent to our guests as possible.”

The fast-casual sandwich chain officially celebrated trans-fat freedom in April.

Trans-fat busting at Beaumont, Texas-based Jason’s is just one example of the “it’s better, so just do it” decisions that the company stands on. Others include the April addition of panini grills and more organic products on the roster.

Although the changes may be invisible to the customer, behind the scenes, components are different. Chocolate mousse, for example, used to include trans-fat-laden whipped topping with milk solids. Now, unit workers whip it fresh with cream.

Jason’s made these changes without raising prices. Same-store sales for July, August and September were up 8 percent to 10 percent over the same months in 2004. How much of that’s attributable to the trans-fat-free products is debatable, but feedback from customers indicates, “We are getting some new guests here purely because we made the switch,” founder Rusty Coco says. “Because we’re 100 percent trans-fat free, they don’t have to shop the menu to find what is and what isn’t OK.”

Good Timing
Jason’s timing is good, says Harry Balzer, vice president of Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group, which polls consumers on 20 health and diet issues every other week. “Trans fat has steadily increased in awareness to the point that it’s now one of their top three concerns,” he says. “Jason’s action puts them ahead of the curve. The fact that they’re not charging customers more for a healthier menu is crucial.”

Jason’s completes the trans-fat purge just as it enters California. “We expect California to be huge for us,” Coco says. “Healthy eating and organics are very important to consumers in California markets.”

While Jason’s celebrates its emancipation from bad fat, Tillman has moved on. She is developing more hot options such as pastas, paninis and wraps to drive dinner business. She’s shaping more “big belly” sandwiches—those stuffed with 6 ounces or more of meat. And she’s planning entree salads and a salad-bar revamp with more organic produce and soups.

Hot Off the Grill
Jason’s began developing panini sandwiches after a Coco family member ate them all over Italy. “We believed the use of the panini grill could really enhance flavors and textures of our ingredients, but it took over a year to accomplish,” Tillman says. In addition to recipe development and the equipment purchase, Jason’s had to work out the logistics of space and additional power supply for the grills.

Jason’s Deli
Beaumont, Texas
2005 Systemwide Sales
$340 million (company estimate)
Average Check
2005 Ad Budget
$12 million*
Ad Agency
WestWayne, Atlanta
Expansion Plans

3 by year-end; 20 in 2006

Tillman initially tested paninis with 3 ounces of meat but later doubled it. “It may not be a traditional panini, but it’s more in line with the value customers expect from Jason’s,” she says.

Jason’s offers panini two ways: The Chicken Panini, $6.25, features olive-oil-basted French bread with basil pesto, grilled chicken breast, provolone cheese, roma tomatoes and spinach. The Southwest-style Smokey Jack Panini, $6.25, comes with smoked turkey breast, bacon, jalapeo jack cheese, Russian dressing, guacamole and roma tomatoes. More versions are in development for January testing.

According to Tillman, the paninis have been a huge success, scoring in the 41/2 to 5 range in test, out of a possible five points. Coco says that sales have put the sandwiches in line with other category leaders such as Jason’s New Orleans Muffaletta, $9.50, premium ham and hard salami with provolone and olive mix.

Panini also paved the way for Wrapinis, wrap sandwiches grilled in the panini machine. In April, Jason’s introduced the best-selling Grilled Portobello Wrapini, $6.25, Italian-dressing-marinated, grilled Portobello mushrooms with avocado spread, pico de gallo, spinach and Asiago cheese; and the Chicken Club Wrapini, $6.25, chicken breast, bacon, red onions, roma tomatoes, ranch dressing, and Swiss and cheddar cheeses.

Company Loyalty
Jason’s menu has been top of mind for Tillman for 27 years. She came to Jason’s as a night-shift line employee in 1978 to help pay for college and never left. After earning a management degree from Lamar University in Beaumont, Tillman became general manager of the flagship store and started working more in product development with Coco. He shared research and development tasks with Tillman for 24 years while she continued as GM. She’s been the company’s full-time product-development director for the last five years.

As such, Tillman develops recipes and training materials, spelling out product builds, portion sizes, presentation and food-cost analysis. She oversees testing, which involves in-store sampling, focus groups and customer feedback via surveys and comment cards.

With 80 items, Jason’s new core menu comes out each April with two to five new items. The company culls slow movers annually but shuttles them onto an approved recipe list that operators can use as specials. “Some items may be favorites regionally, so we want to give operators the opportunity to continue to feature those where it makes sense,” Tillman explains.

Jason’s updates training procedures quarterly and posts them on the company’s Deli Net intranet, which includes its latest marketing promotions and limited-time offers. “Some of these promotional items may move on to core menus,” Tillman says, “but we also have products like chicken gumbo and chicken pot pie that are offered seasonally only.”

Eyes on the Prize
Tillman divides development time between constant re-evaluation of classics like these and the quest to shape new products. Rather than create new dishes on her own, Tillman prefers to hold companywide recipe contests, rewarding best ideas with cash prizes. “Some of our best ideas have come from the field,” she says.

For example, a manager and a trainer split the $1,000 reward for developing trans-fat-free recipes for whipped-cream-based topping and chocolate mousse.

Another example: Several employees collaborated to create the Chicken Pasta Primo, $6.50, penne topped with creamy tomato-basil sauce, grilled chicken breast and Asiago cheese. Launched this year, the dish was Jason’s first stab at a hot entree designed for dinner. It sold so well in test that it went to the core menu in April.

Tillman added a meatballs and marinara pasta special and is exploring more hot-pasta LTOs for January.

Jason’s is also testing a chicken, fruit and nut salad to potentially launch in spring and is revamping the salad bar to add more organic items like artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and maybe an organic soup.

But Tillman’s highest hopes are tied to the current Create a New Sandwich contest, with $500 going to the winner. “I’m seeing a lot of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-type sandwiches and some really creative veggie sandwiches, so who knows where this could go?” she says.



  • Marinated Chicken Breast Salad, with cheddar cheese, black olives, tomatoes, guacamole, mixed greens and Italian dressing, $6.50


  • Spinach Veggie Wrap, with housemade pico de gallo, guacamole, sprouts, mushrooms and Asiago cheese, with a side of picante and choice of fruit, veggies or baked potato chips, $4.99

Baked Potatoes

  • Texas Style Spud, topped with soy-based butter substitute, smoked barbecue beef brisket and cheddar cheese, $5.25

All-Time Favorite Sandwiches

  • Reuben the Great: hot corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on grilled rye bread, with chips and a pickle, $6.25
  • The Slim Jim: hot roast beef, fat-free mozzarella, light ranch dressing, lettuce and tomato on a toasted onion bun, with chips and a pickle, $4.99
  • The addition of panini grills in April makes pressed sandwiches and wraps a hot new menu option for Jason’s customers.

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