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Restaurant executive inspires team in troubled times

Diana Willis has operated Jason's Deli locations in the region since 2001.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 4:50 p.m. April 16, 2020
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Courtesy. Diana Willis, with her husband, Scott, opened their first Jason's Deli, in Fort Myers, in 2001.
Courtesy. Diana Willis, with her husband, Scott, opened their first Jason's Deli, in Fort Myers, in 2001.
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Company: Jason’s Deli

Locations: Six, prior to the pandemic. Two in Fort Myers, in addition to stores in Naples, Cape Coral, Sarasota and Port Charlotte. The Sarasota and Port Charlotte locations have temporarily closed.  

Employees: 245 prior to pandemic. Payroll was down to 180 the week of April 13, and company officials expect it to fall in future weeks.

Executive: Diana Willis

Title: Vice president, owner

Most important lesson you've learned in the shutdown: Not everyone reacts in the same way or handles the stress the same way. There are folks who are especially fearful and others who are a bit nonchalant. Either way, keeping safe [and] above the fray is the most important lesson as a leader and as a human being in the public. There is no wrong way to react to this, just understand there is stress at some level in everyone's life. Try to understand each person's perspective. 

Books, articles, TV shows, podcasts and/or audiobooks have you’ve focused on: We keep up on publications relating to the restaurant industry to learn from and stay on top of constant change. We have spent an extraordinary amount of time on webinars relating to changes in our payroll processes and on the stimulus available to us.

I meditate daily, keep a gratitude journal online and try to remember simple is always the best way to be. Of course we have binged watched a few Netflix series, seen a couple of movies, and I do have a few books [that] when I can unwind, I dive into. I’m currently reading "Love Warrior" by Glennon Doyle, given to me by a dear friend. I have a few podcasts I tap into, but honestly, the quiet is the best place for me lately as there is solace [away from] all the daily noise.

How far out into the future are you looking? Forecasting our future is what we usually do best. However, not knowing just how long this will go on like this or what the new normal is has been more of a challenge. What we have done is figured out how much we need to do in business to keep our full-time managers and employees working. We have sadly closed a couple of locations that could not do the minimum.

The future, whatever changes that brings, as an entrepreneur, we will roll up our sleeves and do what it takes to help our neighbors, community and employees just like we always have. There might be less of us, but we will do what we do best: feed people.

How do you maintain your spirit/morale? On one side of our life, we are in constant communication with our leadership and the CDC changes. We are also in touch with our financial partners on how to stay ahead of the changes coming our way as well as our landlord partners. Keeping ourselves in the know helps us manage each day well informed.  

For fun, we have spent more time in our swimming pool, riding our bikes, going for walks with our dog and staying in touch with our family [virtually] more than normal, especially our son who lives in Brooklyn. Being married to your business partner (husband Scott) has made us hyper-aware of what each of us is going through. We understand there are days when each of us may be under a bit more stress than the other. Trying our best to remain positive in the uncertainty is our best way for us. There is always something good happening to focus on. 

How do you keep the team motivated? I have gotten creative in our Monday Morning messages offering inspiration and hope. We remain communicative to teams as there are so many changes to our operations daily. I think remaining calm, having a plan for the business and being accessible to our teams has kept our folks going. It's not easy adjusting, but honestly, it has simplified what we have always done. We cheer our successes together. 

Executive pay changes: Our leadership teams are not taking any salaries at this time or have the past month. 


Click the links below to hear how more regional executives are handling the shutdowns.


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