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Jason's Deli: Everything's Fresher in Produce

Starting a restaurant is a notoriously tricky business. Planting the seeds of a nearly 300-store strong family-owned force for fresh fast-casual eating is, I’m sure, even trickier. That’s precisely what Joe Tortorice Jr. did in 1976 when he founded his first Jason’s Deli location in Beaumont, Texas.

From the beginning, the company had a simple mantra: “If we wouldn’t serve it to our families, we’re not going to serve it to yours,” and the familial nature of its mission (now made Instagram-famous thanks to the #itsafamilything hashtag) has informed the company’s culture and, of course, its emphasis on fresh produce, since day one.

As Fresh Produce Programs Coordinator of Jason’s Deli, Kim Andreason oversees that relationship to fresh produce. It’s one of the most important pieces of a business that spans 280 stores spread across 28 states.

Kim Andreason, Produce Programs Coordinator, Jason's Deli“There are a lot of moving parts, and I like the challenge of figuring things out within the industry,” says Kim. “Food in general has changed so much over the years with people eating healthier, and I love introducing people to new products that they might never have had the opportunity to see. I love the people in our industry and have made many lifelong friends in it.”

An active member of the Southeast Produce Council’s (SEPC) Foodservice and Southern Roots Committees, Kim is a familiar face to many in our industry and a fixture at events like SEPC’s Southern Roots and Southern Exposure. In her work with Southern Roots, Kim has collaborated with many other female leaders in the produce industry, becoming friend, mentor, and mentee to a number of these women.

Kim’s path to produce was not as straight and narrow as one might imagine though.

This 25-year veteran of the produce industry didn’t come to fresh produce via some dynastic farm-family ties. She didn’t find foodservice along a well-trod path. Kim came to fresh produce the way so many of us do—circuitously, armed with determination and acumen.

“Like a lot of us in the industry I sort of fell into produce,” Kim explains. “It wasn’t my chosen path. I grew up in a really small town in Illinois—400 people—called Hartsburg. Most people haven’t heard of it. My graduating class in high school had 13 people. I’m hoping to see all 13 of them in a few months when I go back for our high school reunion. It was a wonderful place to grow up. It was a safe place, full of friendly and hard-working people. It’s my roots and where I developed a good work ethic.”

Kim credits her parents with sowing the seeds of that work ethic. And it was in Hartsburg that Kim got her first taste of the restaurant business.

“My parents were such a big influence,” Kim says. “My father owned a restaurant-bar in that small town for over 45 years. I think he worked nearly every day and never complained. He passed away in 2014, and we had to sell it. I miss him and ‘Tom’s Lodge,’ but always make time to go visit when I can.”

In those days, some 700 miles away in Beaumont, Tortorice Jr. was hard at work expanding the company he had founded in 1976.

And in 1992, a decade after Jason’s Deli introduced its second store, a Tyler, Texas, location, Kim packed her bags and traversed that 700 miles to relocate in the Lone Star State. In Texas, Kim would find her way to fresh food, but first she would spend some time on the front lines of the restaurant business.

“I was waitressing and hostessing in different restaurants,” Kim explains. “In 1993, I had my son, and I took a year off of work. Then in 1994, I started looking for full-time employment, and my neighbor told me that she had a friend who was hiring for a produce consulting company. She told me that she had no idea what the job entailed, but that I might want to call her. And that’s really how it all started.”

Managing Partner John Riley operating the phones at one of Jason’s Deli’s 280 locations

From those unassuming beginnings, Kim would develop the passion for produce for which she is known.

“Judy Henrichsen hired me at National Produce Consultants (NPC), and I was there for almost ten years. That’s really where I learned the ropes,” Kim says. “I only got to work directly with Judy for a few years, and then she moved to Houston. We worked together off and on throughout our careers. She was one of my best friends whether we were working together or not. She passed away a little over a year ago, and I miss our daily discussions about produce.”

Kim continues, “Our President was Tony Forsythe, and we consulted for national restaurant and hotel chains, helping put together produce programs, basically, and helping them monitor their pricing and quality from the field to the store. I did many different things—a little bit on the sales side, a little bit on the office side. I wore all kinds of different hats, and to be able to learn all the different moving parts and go to all the different events like the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit, to meet with the growers and learn more about them, and visit with distributors—that, I think, was really beneficial. I still keep in contact with Tony and his team at NPC, which has continued to grow over the years.”

In the variety of roles she occupied at NPC, Kim worked with Applebees, Boston Market, major airlines—and Jason’s Deli. Taking her background in produce and her foodservice savvy, Kim went on to new roles at Fresh Network and Hardie’s Fruit and Vegetable, selling to various foodservice, retail, and hospitality channels. And as fate would have it, an opening atop Jason’s program soon presented itself.

“There are a lot of moving parts, and I like the challenge of figuring things out within the industry.”

— Kim Andreason Fresh Produce Programs Coordinator, Jason’s Deli

“At some point Jason’s decided to manage its own produce program internally,” explains Kim. “And then a position opened, and I got a call from Ed Wahlenmaier, who is our Director of Purchasing, that said ‘you kind of know how this program works, and we think it would be a great fit,’ so…” Kim hesitates, “all the pieces just kind of fell into place.”

That felicitous moment in 2007 put Kim in charge of a program she had helped cultivate and brought her into an organization she has called home for more than a decade. Despite an impressive 12 years with Jason’s Deli, though, Kim tells me that she’s still the youngster on the block—as her colleagues in purchasing have worked there, in some cases, for several decades.

“I am still kind of the baby in the purchasing department,” Kim tells me. “Once people start at Jason’s, they tend to stay. Ed, who brought me in, has been there 22 years.”

And purchasing at Jason’s Deli is quite a job. The company is unique insofar as it self-distributes its own inventory with the exception of produce—operating two distribution facilities in Texas and North Carolina. Jason’s Deli distributes all its own meats, dairy, and other items, on the company’s own trucks, each week.

Jason’s Deli had already introduced its first vegetarian menu in 2005 and its first USDA Organic certified offerings the following year. And Kim would continue that work as Fresh Produce Program Coordinator, working hard to ensure the freshest, best-eating, and most on-trend menu items possible, with an emphasis on food safety, quality, and value.

“In 2008, we got rid of added MSG and all high-fructose corn syrup in all of our food. In 2010, we eliminated artificial colors and also added gluten-free and vegan items. In 2012, we removed alfalfa sprouts from our menu because of food safety concerns. In 2013, we added more meatless options,” Kim says. “We feel like we’re changing a lot with the industry trends, and I think we’re seeing a lot more fresh, non-processed food, which I think has really helped us grow. At Jason’s, people can get a salad from our salad bar, featuring many items, at the same price point they would get going through a drive-through.”

And, Kim tells me, she and the Jason’s team are continuing to innovate and add fresh products and ingredients onto the company’s menu. Kim works with Corporate Chef Brandon Hudson and his team to make sure that fresh products are in place at Jason’s Deli’s 35 produce distributors throughout the U.S.

“We’re working with seasonal items now. Two years ago, we added sweet potatoes to our menu, which was a big change; we’ve had them on the menu about six months of the year, and those have been a pretty popular item,” says Kim. “We’ve also been doing some cross-promotions with certain growers—whether they be like Driscoll’s berries or Del Monte pineapples. We did our first promotion with Avocados From Mexico this year.”

All of these developments, Kim tells me, are in service of Jason’s Deli’s founding principles—serving clean, healthy food, from the Jason’s family to yours.

“That quote from Joe Tortorice Jr., ‘If we wouldn’t serve it to our families, we’re not going to serve it to yours,’ is very important to us. For me, personally, Jason’s has probably changed my eating habits,” Kim notes, adding that her experience in the produce industry and at Jason’s Deli has been key in shaping her habits and her attitudes toward food. “At many of the different conferences that we go to, being able to hear different keynote speakers talking about nutrition, about different foods and the ways they affect your body, it’s probably played a big role in changing my habits.”

Kim has embraced—and been embraced by—a fresh food family that can be transformative, and in working with the Dallas Fresh Foods Association founded by The Grinstead Group, she hopes to help the next generation of produce professionals continue to break ground and expand the future of fresh produce. The group’s mission is inspiring consumption and careers in fresh foods, and Kim has taken that mission to heart, encouraging young people entering the workforce to consider fresh produce.

Regarding the produce industry, Kim adds, “There’s always something new to learn. No day is ever the same. It’s always a challenge. And probably one of my biggest passions now is to reach out to the younger generation—because everyone in produce that I’m talking to is having challenges with labor, in every aspect of the industry—in warehouses, trucking, sales. Everyone is looking for people constantly. There is so much opportunity in produce.”

Kim and her peers are working hard to impress upon young people that futures in fresh produce are bright.

With its emphasis on embracing fresh food trends, Jason’s Deli is continuing to pioneer a produce-focused path throughout the U.S. And Kim is at the helm, ensuring the future of fresh is healthy, wealthy, and as warm and inviting as a family meal.