May 2008
UNIT DESIGN

Deli'cious Ambition
By: Janice Cha

A contemporary new prototype, more efficient equipment layout and growing emphasis on sustainability promise to take Jason's Deli into even more profitable territory.

Glance at the menu at any Jason's Deli, and check out the food being carried to tables, and it's clear you're in a food lover's haven. What's not as obvious is that you're standing in a concept that's continuing to reinvent itself, even after 30 years. That's no small feat for a company that's grown to 180 stores in 23 states.

Jason's Deli, founded in 1976 by Joe Tortorice Jr. in Beaumont, Texas, this year is rolling out a more compact prototype with a contemporary new décor package, a more efficient equipment lineup, a just-opened test kitchen and corporate approval for running a more environmentally friendly operation.

Reinvention along these lines is par for the course for a company that prides itself on its forward thinking. Jason's is an efficient company whose average store cranks out half of its $2.4 million in annual revenue through a robust catering business. It's also a responsible company that banished artificial trans fat from its menus well before "trans fat" became a buzzword, and is targeting high-fructose corn syrup with the same zeal that it's approaching energy- and water-efficiency measures.

A Stroll Down The Line
Before we investigate the latest layout changes, let's make a quick visit to a typical Jason's, usually found at end-cap locations. The store separates dine-in and carry-out traffic using two entrances: one opening onto the main dining area, the other leading to the pickup counter. Inside, between the two doors, a short, curved divider wall set at just the right angle guides dine-in guests straight to the beginning of the order line. The wall is a directional suggestion, not a barrier. There's plenty of space to pass from one area to the other.

Jason's uber-efficient cookline handles both dine-in and catering at the same time and was recently tweaked for even greater efficiency (more on that later). The line supports an 80-item menu, a something-for-everyone list that includes hot and cold sandwiches, wraps, pasta, soups, salads and desserts.

Customers start by placing food orders at the register. If the order takes extra cooking time, you receive a number for the table. You go past a curved-glass display case offering bottled beverages and grab-and-go items. A step beyond that brings you to the food action, where, behind the sneeze guards, workers build sandwiches using ingredients from the hot and cold food wells, and toast breads as needed in a high-volume conveyor toaster.

Along the back wall, the astute observer will see two stacked conveyor ovens, which together handle about 50% of all orders. There are more hot and cold food wells, a reach-in refrigerator, a double-stacked oven, microwave ovens and at the end, a two-hob induction unit for soup prep. Rows of stainless steel shelves hold napkins, containers, condiments and cutlery. Breads of all kinds are stored in stacked plastic bins or bags. At meal times, the line is abuzz with activity.

You finish by settling your bill at either of two cash registers. These are cleverly positioned behind you near the end of the line—not on the line itself—so you look out over the dining area as you pay. You walk past the generously sized salad bar (with its complimentary fresh-baked mini-muffins), the beverage station, and the complimentary soft-serve ice cream machine. Your food order is delivered to your table shortly after you sit down.

Reforming The Line
Now let's take a look at how the production line was refined to its current efficiencies. Jason's had been doing pretty well with its two parallel make-lines simultaneously serving dine-in and catering customers. Most of the dine-in production is handled on the front line (closest to customers) and catering along the back. Food prep—storing, washing, slicing, chopping and portioning—takes place in a space behind the catering production line wall. Although it functions well, the equipment setup had a few rough spots in need of tweaking, especially where food items had to cross over from back line to front or vice versa.

In January, at a manufacturer's warehouse building in Dallas, a group of about 10—including team members from Jason's operations, training, construction and facilities, plus a manufacturers' rep—gathered for a hands-on meeting about production efficiencies in the prototype.

The actual line was replicated in the warehouse using buyout pieces on wheels. Then, some play-acting: "We operated the line as though we were making various sandwiches from the menu, and analyzed each step along the way," says Todd Breiner, director of facilities planning.

The day-long exercise forced everyone to "really think about every step that goes into creating a dish," Breiner says. It was also easier to spot inefficiencies without the pressure of trying to serve customers at the same time.

The exercise resulted in moving one of the swing positions from the back line to the front line. Specifically, the team moved two hot wells to the front counter, then realigned product along that area to make it more accessible from either side.

"The change let us work linearly rather than doing crossovers [from front to back]," Breiner says. The resulting equipment lineup will be built in every new Jason's this year. But the tweaking will continue: "We plan to reconvene next January to see how it worked out," he adds.

Reducing Power, Water Requirements
On a larger scale, Jason's Deli has been working with a mechanical-electrical-plumbing engineering firm to try to reduce power and water use. Some aspects of this are as simple as charting when to turn on equipment each morning so as not to waste electricity; upgrading from T12 to T8 or even T5 fluorescent lighting along the cookline; installing occupancy sensors in restrooms, managers' offices and store rooms; and installing special film on windows that block up to 80% of incoming heat.

A more complicated piece of the energy-efficiency push involves the HVAC system and hood. The goal, Breiner says, is to reduce the current air conditioning tonnage load of about 32 to 36 tons down to an average of 28 to 32 tons. "That'll save us at least $5,000 on initial construction costs alone by using fewer HVAC units," Breiner says, "and will save on long-term energy use at the store as well."

Jason's is also testing a hood that's designed solely for impingement-style conveyors, a unit designed to sit low and close to the oven to capture as much heat as possible without exhausting too much conditioned air.

Water Savings: Think Low Flow, Dual Flush
Low-flow pre-rinse spray nozzles in the kitchen and low-flow or dual-flush toilets in the restrooms are leading the charge on the water-saving front. (Jason's is also testing 1/8-gal. urinals and waterless urinals at several stores.)

Regarding the unusual choice of a dual-flush commode, Jason's execs say it's a matter of educating customers. "We've got signs showing how to use the flush mechanism, and why it's better for the environment. Guests seem to appreciate it," Breiner says. The simple act of switching to water-efficient toilets has saved more than 15,000 gals. per year per store.

The nozzles and toilets, currently in use at five stores, will be installed at all future delis and at Jason's 100 corporate stores by December. "We're also encouraging our 80 franchised stores to follow suit," Breiner says.

Also being tested is a low-flow warewasher, which is slated for installation in two stores this spring. "The plan is to monitor the water use of our current warewashers vs. the new units."

Prototype Banishes Neon, Goes Contemporary
In a departure from the classic deli-style décor of most of Jason's existing stores—red neon signs, black-and-white vintage photos, tile floors and leather-look seating—the prototype store, opened at the end of 2007 in Flower Mound, Texas, strikes a contemporary note from the moment you enter.

No more neon, for starters. Instead, 12"-high freestanding wooden letters, dramatically backlit on a curved soffit, indicate where to order and pick up. The colorful wall behind the cookline, tiled in red, orange, yellow, sage green and tan, provides a warm backdrop for the stainless steel cooking equipment.

On the opposite side of the restaurant, an exposed brick wall along the banquette seating is hung with photographic "picture poems" created by nationally recognized Beaumont photographer Keith Carter. Natural stone tile floors, molded wood chairs and short walls painted in sage green and orange complete the look.

"We're aiming for an environment and atmosphere that better matches Jason's philosophy," Breiner says. Part of the new campaign is about "being real," he continues. "We've been focused so long on looking like a New York delicatessen. It's time for our décor to reflect who we are now."

Trekking Ahead
Although the prototype and a new test kitchen have been launched and the production line fine tuned, the Jason's Deli corporate team still has a long to-do list. Topping Breiner's list is a plan to accelerate the eco-friendly aspects of restaurant design and building.

"We'd like to align ourselves with other restaurant companies who are also passionate about eco-friendly design, to share information about renewable products and water- and energy-efficient equipment," says Breiner, who has already begun talking with colleagues from other like-minded restaurant chains. "If we create a buying co-op, that would help us bring these products to market much sooner by leveraging our buying power. And it would help support emerging companies that might otherwise lack the funds to support our industry."

Until then, Jason's will forge ahead with its plans to open 30 restaurants in 2008 and about 35 more in '09.

Going Solar
At the Jason's Deli in Austin, Texas, sandwiches achieve their toasty goodness with the help of solar power. On the building's roof, an array of solar panels collects sunlight and converts it to direct-current electricity. An inverter changes the power into alternating current that feeds into the electrical system, and voila! Additional power.

The solar panel array marks the second of many more to come for the Beaumont, Texas, deli chain. And while it's not exactly cheap—"We spent about $48,000 for the Austin array," says Raymond Begnaud, Jason's director of facilities and development—the cost was generously offset by rebates from Austin Energy, the city's municipally owned electric utility. The system will produce up to 7500kWh of electricity per year, or about 10% of the store's energy use. That's the equivalent of preventing approximately 10,500 pounds of CO2 emissions each year, or of planting 350 trees.

Austin Energy supports solar power with a rebate of $4.50 per watt, according to utility spokesman Ed Clark. "This is [one of] the most aggressive rebates in the country," Clark says. "Between federal tax credits and our rebate, it can cover about 70% of a solar array's cost."