Carrie Rengers

A conversation with Jason’s Deli founder Joe Tortorice Jr.

Jason’s Deli founder Joe Tortorice Jr. is speaking at the Chamber’s Sunrise Scrambler on Thursday about the secret of life, which he says is servant leadership.
Jason’s Deli founder Joe Tortorice Jr. is speaking at the Chamber’s Sunrise Scrambler on Thursday about the secret of life, which he says is servant leadership. Courtesy photo

Ever wanted to know the secret to life?

Jason’s Deli founder Joe Tortorice Jr. is going to share it with Wichita Thursday, at least from his perspective.

Tortorice is the speaker for the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Sunrise Scrambler in advance of Exposure, its annual trade show and networking event that’s happening the same day.

He started Jason’s Deli, which he named for his eldest son, Jay, in 1976. Today, Tortorice has 269 restaurants in 28 states.

The Beaumont, Texas, native – with the drawl to prove it – squeezed in a quick phone interview on his way to the airport to fly to Wichita on Wednesday.

So your secretary said you were just grabbing lunch at a deli. Was it Jason’s?

“Oh yeah, oh yeah. There’s no other deli, is there?”

You’ve been to Wichita before and after the opening of your two restaurants here. What did you think?

“I love it. It’s a fine town. … I love the aerospace part ot it. … It was a clean, neat town.”

Your Scrambler talk is on the secret to life, which you say is servant leadership. What does that mean?

“It means take ownership of the well being of others. It means my employees are not working for me, I’m working for my employees. It means put their needs first. They all have hopes and dreams.”

Practically, how does that work?

“Well, I’ll give you some results. We have one of the lowest turnovers in the industry. We have employees who’ve been with us 35, 38, 40 years. We have over 11,000 employees.”

When people ask you where you get your great employees, what do you say?

“We get them the same place everybody else gets them. It’s what happens once they get inside our company. We try to create an emotionally safe place in our company. … We do all we can to help them keep … a roof over their head.”

How does that in turn work for you?

“The happier our people are, number one, we’re a better company, and number two, they’re going to do a better job with our customers. … I absolutely have seen that. There is no doubt in my mind.”

Where did you learn this philosophy?

“Well, I had some really good mentors.”

Your namesake father, a grocer, being chief among them?

“He had a way with people that over time his store flourished and some (competitors) dropped off by the wayside.”

Giving store credit to people who couldn’t afford groceries had to help.

“Those are the kinds of things that I learned from my father. I called him the great encourager. He was always there giving me the inspiration to press forward. When you start a business … there are days more often than not when you don’t know whether a customer is going to show up or not. There are days you don’t know if all your employees are going to show up. … I had a great encourager behind me.”

How is the servant leader philosophy different than what you thought business would be?

“When I first started out, I thought I was in the money business. I thought the almighty dollar drove everything. I was focusing all my time and efforts on making money when in fact if one focuses on serving others, the money takes care of itself. It’s kind of paradoxical.”

Is it true you eat in your delis every weekday and sometimes on the weekends?

“I love our food. It gives me a chance to interact with our people. … I don’t really work.”

What’s your favorite dish on the menu?

“A New Orleans muffaletta. … It’s a sweet-and-salty explosion of flavor.”

What’s one thing few people know about you?

“One of my passions that I have become enthralled in is a prison ministry where we go into a prison once a week and actually read scripture, sing and give them … love. Because this is a maximum-security prison, and many of them are in there for a long time. Honestly, I probably get more out of it than they do.”

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers