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A peek inside the chain that might out-Chipotle Chipotle

Meet the standout restaurant success that’s proving a good-sized chain can deliver truly healthful and wholesome choices if it’s willing to think and operate differently.

What’s that you say? You’re already familiar with Chipotle?

That’s good, because you’ll see quickly that Jason’s Deli may outstrip Chipotle on such attributes as ingredient purity, transparency and adhering to principles that can weigh against profits. It just doesn’t crow as much about the commitment.

A rare airing of the chain’s standards, policies, and all-important core values was provided last week during Technomic’s Consumer Insights Planning Program in Newport Beach, Calif. The conference was structured to provide operators with practical information about restaurant customers and how their preferences are evolving, so of course health considerations were addressed. Jason’s was showcased as a chain with remarkable acumen in reading and delivering what an increasingly health-minded public wants.

The franchise chain has cultivated that ability as a guiding strategy, not a marketing tactic for the moment, explained Jamie Cohen, Jason’s chief branding officer. Hitting the industry show circuit a few years ago as an attendee, he heard again and again that a business should be true to its core values. Cohen realized a reckoning was needed back at his headquarters: What were Jason’s core values?

The chain decided that health and wholesomeness—what Cohen insists is merely “doing the right thing”—were a part of its DNA and should influence all aspects of the business, right down to food presentation. A bright red tomato sauce is pleasing, but the notion of artificially delivering that color weighs against Jason’s wholesomeness imperative. “Why do you need red dye in a tomato sauce?” he asked the conference audience. “It’s gone.”

Ditto for the metallic additive that preserves the whiteness of sauces and other meal components. “It’s not a food, so it’s out of there,” he said.

High-fructose corn syrup got the heave-ho before the debate over that soft drink sweetener spilled into daytime talk shows and the dire warnings of consumer health advocates.

The core value could sometimes be a core pain. “Back in 2004, when we started to remove trans fats, no one, including us, really knew what trans fats were,” Cohen recalled. Jason’s longtime supplier of croutons couldn’t deliver a version that was free of trans fats, so the relationship ended and the chain started producing the baked item itself.

Cohen said the 250-unit chain has the rock-solid conviction that rising interest in health is a true shift in consumer attitudes, not the swing of a pendulum. “We do believe more customers have dietary restrictions, we do believe that more customers have to make health choices,” he declared with a revival preacher’s enthusiasm.

“Last year we had 300,000 people visit our online fitness calculator, and we didn’t introduce it until March,” Cohen said. “We’re having more people ask for vegetarian items. We’re seeing a sales mix of 3 to 5 percent of people trading down to smaller portions. We’re listening to customers, and they’re asking more and more for non-pork options at breakfast.”

Responding to customers’ health sensitivities doesn’t mean kowtowing to junk science or diet fashions. “We made a conscious decision in the past not to buy into fads,” Cohen said. “A perfect example is Atkins.” The chain did not skew its menu to play down carbohydrates.

In contrast, “we’ve seen a 62 percent increase in our gluten-free-designated items over about the last year,” he said.

As a business controlled by its founders, not Wall Street or a private-equity investor, Jason’s avoids the tug of war that can erupt when the right thing and the more profitable option aren’t aligned, Cohen said.

Nine years ago, co-founder and president Joe Tortorice set up an in-house educational resource for employees called the Leadership Institute. Among the programs it offers is instruction on navigating marriage, managing personnel income and conflict resolution. There’s also a 2.5-day workshop on the company’s core values.

Cohen recounted how his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago. “The company literally said, ‘Take a year off’, and they meant it,” he said.

Not coincidentally, a dime from each sale of Jason’s house-brand bottled water is donated to cancer research. “Almost everyone has some connection to someone who had cancer so a lot of people have a very emotional connection. It’s very real.”

Jason’s is still a business, not a New Age ashram. A few years ago, I interviewed co-founder and menu guru Rusty Coco about the chain’s sustainability efforts. Given the commitment, why wasn’t it switching to organics? It wasn’t economically feasible, he said at the time, “but we’re working on it. I’d love to do it.”

It’s not about spin-doctoring an impression Cohen stressed during his appearance at the Technomic event. “Be transparent,” he advised. “Look at your food, tell that story, and tell your customers what you’re doing.

“If you’re a brand without a soul in this day and age, I don’t think you’re going to last very long.”

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