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Leadership

Jason’s Deli CEO Joe Tortorice dies at age 70

The grandson of Italian immigrants co-founded the chain nearly 43 years ago.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Joe Tortorice, CEO and co-founder of the Jason’s Deli fast-casual sandwich and salad chain, has died at age 70 after battling cancer for nearly two years. 

Tortorice was active in the brand since teaming up with Rusty Coco, Pat Broussard and Pete Verde to open a deli in the oil center of Beaumont, Texas, in November 1976. The store, which is still in business, was named after Tortorice’s son Jay (the name is a combination of "Jay" and "son.") 

The elder Tortorice and Coco drew on what they learned about the food business from their fathers’ respective grocery stores, with Coco handling much of the menu part of the business, and Tortorice overseeing the business end of the venture. He had graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in business administration. 

Tortorice had also been exposed to the business through his father’s two sandwich concepts and a restaurant operated in Beaumont by his grandfather during the 1950s.

Joe Tortorice Jr.

Joe Tortorice Jr.

Jason’s would grow steadily, in part through franchising, reaching today’s tally of about 280 stores. 

As the brand evolved, the dire illness of an executive’s wife convinced management to rethink the ingredients in its food. Long before it was fashionable to talk about menu transparency and no-no lists of banned additives, Jason’s was removing all the artificial colorings, ingredients and preservatives that it could, including MSG. As one executive put it, “If you can’t pronounce something, it shouldn’t be in our food.”  

Yet the chain didn’t crow about that distinction as much as larger competitors subsequently would. Nor did it play up the distinctions that turned some customers into die-hard fans, such as using the same chewy Italian bread for its muffuletta sandwiches that is used for the New Orleans staple by Cajun purists. 

Tortorice was a firm believer in servant leadership, a philosophy that holds the key to outstanding business success is giving back to employees, customers and communities. Employees say it was the foundation of Tortorice's warm yet effective management style. 

"Tortorice was best known for his kindness, empathy and humility--a testament to the way he lived his life as a servant leader and his dedication to improving the lives of others," Jason's Deli said in a statement about the CEO's passing.

“I haven't worked there for a couple of years, but Joe will always hold a special spot in my heart," said Madison Boozer, an employee for 10 years of Jason's brand management department. "I care very much for Mr. Tortorice, the company he built and the lives he changed."

Tortorice himself kept a relatively low profile. It was rare for his name to appear on the programs of industry events, and the company remains privately owned. Yet Jason’s has continued to grow, hitting $721 million in systemwide sales in 2018, which made it the nation’s 66th-largest restaurant chain, according to Technomic data.

The brand also promoted health through its support of various cancer-combating charities.

Tortorice will be buried with military honors in Beaumont, where he continued to live after his business prospered.

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