You want to succeed in business?

Then don’t learn how to manage people, learn how to serve them.

That’s the advice of Texas entrepreneur Joe Tortorice ’70, founder of Jason’s Deli. Tortorice says servant leadership is the backbone of the corporate culture he’s so proud of, and the secret behind the success of his sandwich-making venture. “How do you get people to follow you? I believe it’s to serve them,” says Tortorice. Do more than merely pay them well: through encouragement, humility, and generosity, help them to live well.

“How do you get people to follow you?” Joe Totorice ’70 asked Mays students during his guest lecture. “I believe it’s to serve them.”

People frequently ask him, “Joe, where do you get your people?!” He loves when others recognize his outstanding employees, but his response is always the same: The same place you get them. It’s what happens to them after they join the company that makes the difference.

Like the Jason’s Deli Fishing School, named for the “teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime” adage. The Fishing School offers free classes on life skills to employees at every level—financial planning, marriage enrichment, spiritual and physical wellness. “You’ve got to do something other than work to be better at work. To be more effective at work, spend more time with your family…. you’ve got to balance your family, your health, your spiritual, and your professional areas,” says Tortorice, who believes that’s as true for him—president of the company—as it is for the hourly wage earner mopping the floors or making sandwiches. When you help your people to accomplish their goals, then they will do all they can to help you accomplish the company’s goals.

“You can have everything you want in life, if you will just help other people get what they want,” he says, quoting Zig Ziglar. “You have to get buy in from your people. How do you get buy-in so that they will follow you? By being humble and constantly encouraging them, and by being a generous person…Generosity is one of the great business secrets of all time.”

That mindset is evident in the Jason’s Deli Leadership Institute, a management-training program that takes line workers without a college degree and turns them into store managers. Nearly a third of his managers come through the program, a point of pride for Tortorice, who sees it as an opportunity to change lives—not only for the employee, but for his or her family, as well. The Leadership Institute also offers courses for managers on topics such as emotional intelligence—a trait that Tortorice feels is invaluable in creating the environment of service leadership he strives for.

“We’ve got to produce more for less and with greater speed than we’ve ever done before. The only way to do that in a sustained way is through the empowerment of people. And the only way to get empowerment is through high-trust cultures and an empowerment philosophy that turns bosses into servants and coaches.”
Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf

Even in a recession economy, even though there are many, many places where one can buy a sandwich, Tortorice says the business continues to thrive. He chalks it up to service—and not the your-order-is-right kind of service. Serving customers to him means crafting a menu that is more than delicious, it’s also healthy: the chain has eliminated MSG, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup from their food, and many of their ingredients are organic. He admits it costs more to do business that way, but he believes it’s the right thing to do. He’s worried about the childhood obesity epidemic—”Do you know that kids today are the first generation predicted to not live as long as the generation before them?”—and his commitment to healthier menu offerings is part of his contribution to solving the social problem.

His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed: earlier this year, Parents magazine listed Jason’s Deli second on their top ten best fast-casual family restaurants, based on their nutritious and value-conscious kids menu.

  • Set a vision for your organization and then remove obstacles in front of your people’s goals to accomplish that vision.
  • Serve yourself first. Leaders are readers. Improve yourself daily.
  • Continuously encourage others.
  • Always remain humble. Listen to your people and heed their suggestions.
  • Practice caring spirituality. Pay attention to your inner restlessness and need for purpose.
  • Be generous.
  • Emotionally connect with others.

Tortorice started out managing a sandwich counter at his father’s dry cleaning store; today there are 215 Jason’s Delis in 28 states, including his first store in Beaumont, Texas. He says he never dreamed his business would get so big. “I started out just to make a living, to make ends meet, and somehow by the grace of God, we’ve had some good things happen to us.”

Spirituality is an important element to Tortorice’s business, as he says, “Grateful people can’t be unhappy.” He opens meetings with prayer and posts inspirational thoughts, appropriately called “daily bread” in each of his stores. He encourages employees to be thankful—to realize that all of the good things around them aren’t accidents, they’re blessings. “Start your day out giving thanks for something. I do, and it’s made a world of difference for me.”

Joe Tortorice is about more than making sandwiches, or making money. As a servant leader, he says he wants to bring joy and enthusiasm to his people. “We’re in the people business,” he says. “Our product just happens to be sandwiches.”

Joe Tortorice holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Texas A&M University. He recently visited campus to address students at Mays Business School.