The running joke among Jason Valentine’s circle of friends was that he was always 20 going on 40, says Valentine, now president and COO of Zoup Eatery. He achieved his lofty position at 38, getting hired by Zoup’s CEO and founder Eric Ersher in 2018. Since then, Valentine has guided the fast casual on a menu-driven rebrand, changing the name from Zoup Fresh Soup Co. to Zoup Eatery, creating a new prototype, upgrading technology, smoothing operations and doubling off-premise sales. The first new prototype opened in February, and Valentine is now ready to power up franchising to expand locations. “We’re giving franchisees a great opportunity to succeed,” he says.

Valentine was raised in a franchise family: His father was a franchisee for McDonald’s and then operated a number of Cousins Subs franchises. “I helped run my father’s franchise business, then became a franchisor myself,” he says. That experience taught Valentine the importance of customer service—to both guest and employees—and building a solid team.

It’s that team that is key to his growth plans. Valentine hired experienced people to lead culinary, finance and tech, with him as the “integrator” and Ersher as the “visionary.” “I’ve always been wired to learn from the people around me,” he says.