Restaurant Chain That Also Supplies School Lunches Goes Trans Fat-Free

On April 15, after a painstaking five-year mission, every food item in all of Beaumont, Texas-based Jason's Deli's 137 restaurants nationwide will be completely free of partially hydrogenated oils.

Jason's also supplies one million box lunches served each year to elementary and secondary school students. All items in those box lunches are now free of partially hydrogenated oils. School box lunches were a priority and one of the first food items "cleaned up," according to Jason's co-owner Rusty Coco.

The new Dietary Guidelines issued by the U.S. Government state that individuals should keep trans fat consumption "as low as possible." The goal proved more difficult than expected.

"Back in 2000, we decided to get the partially hydrogenated oils out of all of our food. The more we looked at food products, the more partially hydrogenated oils we found. It's everywhere!" said Coco.

In changing its entire menu and every product it serves, Jason's had to use its purchasing power to push its suppliers to change their ways. "We told our suppliers to rework their products or we would find others who would," recalls Coco. "We refused to take no for an answer.

"It wasn't just the challenge of ditching partially hydrogenated oils; we had to match our existing flavor profiles," Coco continued. "We're basically a sandwich business and you can't hide or fry over a lack of flavor. Our customers from little kids to octogenarians have to receive all the flavor and bite they expect from Jason's food."

Jason's R&D department worked intensively on the project. Once it found or developed a product without partially hydrogenated oil, it was tried in Jason's 16 test delis for customer tasting and comments. In all, Jason's Deli converted 47 ingredients once made with partially hydrogenated oils, which go into making many of its 80 standard menu items.

What was the toughest item? Margarine. There was no such thing as a buttery blend free of partially hydrogenated oils on the market a few years ago. Other hurdles were bread, Jason's signature broccoli and cheese soup, whipped topping, the mac and cheese on Jason's Junior menu, chocolate mousse, and the crackers on Jason's Famous Salad Bar.

"We are extremely proud of what we have done," said co-owner Joe Tortorice. "No one else in the restaurant industry has successfully accomplished the removal of partially hydrogenated oils on this scale. We are doing the right thing for our customers' health by leading the way on this."

Jason's has locations in 18 states from North Carolina to Nevada and is expanding into other states, including California. Jason's has company-owned and franchised locations. The QSR50 report lists Jason's Deli as the nation's ninth ranked fast-casual chain by systemwide sales.

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