The Untold Truth Of Jason's Deli

Jason's Deli is simply named, belying the treasures behind its counters. The chain of more than 200-plus outlets proudly boasts one of the most expansive, and thus crowd-pleasing menus in fast food, offering things few or no other chain does. In addition to its popular sandwiches served both cold and hot, like classic favorites such as the California Club, Reuben, and Beefeater, Jason's Deli has soups, giant and loaded baked potatoes, carefully crafted salads, a salad bar, and endless baskets of mini gingerbread and corn muffins. They've even got hot veggies, picnic fare, fruit, vegetarian entrees, kid stuff, and specialty items inspired by the cuisines of New Orleans and Italy. Jason's Deli has clearly set out to offer something for everyone, and they're well on their way to succeeding in that mission.

An alternative to burger joints and harkening back to big-city corner delis of the early 20th century, Jason's Deli has differentiated itself from the fast food pack and has aggressively expanded across the United States over the past couple of decades. Here's a look into the creation, rise, and operations of Jason's Deli.

Just who exactly is Jason?

Jason's Deli has been going strong and expanding rapidly since its first location opened in 1976 in Beaumont, Texas, now a chain of nearly 300 outlets in 28 states employing a staff of around 12,000. It all started with company founder Joe Tortorice, Jr., who seemed to inherit the entrepreneurial and restaurant management skills of his father, Joe Tortorice, Sr., who ran a modest empire of four grocery stores, two dry cleaners, some laundromats, and a sandwich shop called J's BBQ. Tortorice, Jr. used the latter as inspiration when he opened Jason's Deli in 1976, and one of his first employees was his retired grandfather, who'd worked in food service for decades.

None of those people are actually named "Jason," however — nor is there anyone in the immediate Tortorice family who goes by that name. The deli chain gets its name from a cute bit of wordplay. According to the Houston Chronicle, Tortorice wanted to call his shop Tortorice's, but associates told him it would be too hard for customers to pronounce. But Tortorice, Jr's first-born son is named Jay, and not long after he was born, he opened Jason's Deli, the Jason coming from combining "Jay" with "Son."

Jason's Deli systematically eliminated unhealthy ingredients

For all of their deliciousness and convenience, the kinds of ingredients used to cheaply and efficiently make up the menus at national fast chains are not the healthiest. Nutritional experts have long posited that additives, particularly heavily processed, artificial, and scientifically developed, non-natural ones are not great for the overall health of an individual or the public at large. While consumers can easily stock up on organic or natural-based ingredients and foodstuffs at grocery stores like Whole Foods or their local co-ops, it's tough to find similar items at fast food restaurants. That's what makes Jason's Deli such an outlier and pioneer in the quick-serve sector.

In 2005, the chain purported to be the first national restaurant to eliminate partially hydrogenated oil — or trans fats — from its menu. Three years later, it got rid of non-naturally occurring monosodium glutamate or MSG, an additive that can trigger uncomfortable symptoms. With the exception of some fountain drinks supplied by national brands, Jason's Deli got rid of high-fructose corn syrup in 2008, and in 2010 started to gradually cut artificial colors from its food, starting with kid's menu items. That same year, Jason's Deli cut sugary soft drinks from kid's meals, too, offering a choice of organic juice or milk to go with antibiotic-free and gluten-free chicken nuggets.

Why Jason's Deli has free ice cream

Most every restaurant chain has a unique angle, or a perk, something that only it offers to keeps customers coming back time and time again to its many locations, for years on end. For Jason's Deli, a fast food restaurant that sells a wide variety of sandwiches, it sets itself apart from competitors like Subway, Quiznos, and Jimmy John's by offering ice cream to its paying customers. What's even more enticing is that the frozen dessert is free, and it always has been. According to Jason's Deli, the product they call ice cream is technically "ice milk," a lower-fat dairy dessert produced by soft-serve machines with product provided by Oak Farms Dairy of Texas.

The official company line on why it doesn't charge for something it could easily make a fortune on is that "everyone deserves dessert." The explanation as to why they started doing it is much more simple. According to Phoenix Magazine, the manager of a Jason's Deli franchise found a disused frozen yogurt maker in a stockroom in the late '70s, got it running again, and started making ice cream for customers. Before long, it was a chain-wide practice.

The COVD-19 pandemic hurt Jason's Deli

The coronavirus pandemic negatively impacted the restaurant industry in a big way. Widespread lockdowns aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 transmission closed restaurants to in-person dining for months at a time in many cities and states, leading to huge revenue losses for restaurants both big and small. 

Jason's Deli was particularly hurt by the pandemic and pandemic-slowing measures because of the quirks of how it does business. According to Restaurant Business Online, Jason's Deli operated 283 outlets at the end of 2019. Then, when COVD-19 hit the U.S. in early 2020 and dining rooms closed, Jason's Deli had to not only shut down in-house dining, but also had to discontinue the use of its signature culinary attraction: It's large, extremely varied salad bars. The company had to switch to made-to-order salads prepared by staff, diminishing the do-it-yourself-allure of its bars. Those factors helped contribute to catastrophic losses for the company. By October 2020, six months after the pandemic began to greatly affect daily life in the U.S., Jason's Deli had permanently closed 22 restaurants, roughly 10 percent of its entire network.

A Jason's Deli help wanted sign went viral in 2021

Jason's Deli operates a location in West Melbourne, Florida. Like many restaurants in 2021, according to Forbes, it suffered from understaffing, as a large swath of the workforce opted to continue to receive pandemic-recovery unemployment benefits instead of returning to food service jobs that paid less. According to Space Coast Daily, the manager of that Jason's Deli posted a sign outside their restaurant advertising jobs that needed to be filled along with a sliding scale of pay offered. It ranged from "Min Wage = Mediocre Person" to "$9.00 / hr. = 1st Job, willing to learn" to "$13.00 / hr. = Supervisory material" to "$15.00 + / hr. = Out shines and out performs the owner." Twitter user @HaitianDivorce snapped a photo of the sign and posted it online, and it quickly went viral, with plenty of tweets both in support of and critical of the deli manager's comments.

Jason's Deli's corporate headquarters addressed the matter on the official company Facebook page, explaining that the sign really did indicate opportunity for growth and higher hourly wages through the restaurant's "Career Path" program, however indelicately. "The sign communicated that message in an inappropriate manner that does not accurately reflect the hiring practices of Jason's Deli," a company representative wrote. "We reached out to the manager and he recognized the sign's inappropriateness and immediately removed it. We regret any misunderstanding that sign may have caused."

Not every town is thrilled when a Jason's Deli opens

It took Jason's Deli a while to expand, but once it started growing, it positively exploded. After opening its first location in Beaumont, Texas in 1976, the company expanded into Tyler, Texas, six years later. As it approached its 40th anniversary in 2016, according to the Dallas Business Journal, more than 260 Jason's Deli's were open for business. Less than five years after that, almost 300 were up and running.

But with all that staggering success came some all-out failures. While some markets loved having a Jason's Deli (or more than one Jason's Deli), other cities and states weren't so welcoming. According to KSDK, every Jason's Deli in the populous St. Louis, Missouri, area had shut down by late 2020. It also struggled to attract customers in Tucson, Arizona. According to, the first franchised (meaning not company-owned) Jason's Deli opened in the Arizona metropolis in 1988, but both locations in the area closed down in 2010 amid major financial difficulties.

Jason's Deli also had problems in Indiana. The concessions-style outlet inside of Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse (home of the NBA's Indiana Pacers) shut down after nine months in 2018, according to Vigilant Sports. The following year, per the Indianapolis Business Journal, Jason's Deli pulled out of Indianapolis altogether.