Under the Toque: Jim Villemaire

Chef turns supplier experience into innovation

September 2010 – Jim Villemaire says he got a lucky break. The former Bennigan’s cook was making copies at the parent company’s corporate headquarters when S&A’s head of research and development invited him to come work for him. At the time, Villemaire was a training at Bennigan’s and had no R&D experience. While working at Bennigan’s, he also met his future wife – which he ranks as one of his career highlights.

He then took a job at a giant supplier Cargill, where he continued to learn about R&D in the restaurant business.

Now, as director of R&D for the 39-year-old, 350-unit Schlotzsky’s, Villemaire incorporate lessons learned while working at restaurants and Cargill – a job that allowed him to gain insight into many large restaurant companies.

In addition so sharing some of his best practices, Villemaire reveals news on yet-to-be-released menu items.

What was your first foodservice job? I was a cook at Cheddar’s in Arlington, Texas.

How did you transition from cooking into research and development? I worked my way through the cooking ranks at Bennigan’s and got into kitchen management and was tapped to be a trainer. One day I was standing by the copier and them man who took over for director of R&D at S&A restaurants [Bennigan’s parent company] at the time, David Groll, said he had a team of chefs, but didn’t have anyone who had any experience working [in the kitchen] at Bennigan’s. He asked, “Do you have any interest in doing research and development?” I jumped at the chance.  He gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.

After S&A, you took a job with supplier Cargill. Did your experience there give you insights into how other chains operate their R&D departments? I got to see the best practices of some amazing chains. I took the best pieces of how they do things. One of the most important things I’ve integrated is that I want anyone who does anything for me to feel appreciated. People who sit on my side of the desk can get aggressive and feel so important. But we’re all just people.

Was it difficult to make the switch from supplier back to a chain? For a while I feared that I’d never be able to get back [into a restaurant company.] Once I left, [some people] didn’t consider me a real restaurant chef. You learn about how people like to categorize. Some of the sales folks who used to be your best buddies didn’t have any time for you when you didn’t anything to give them. And that in itself was eye opening.

Describe Schlotzsky’s for anyone who’s never been to one. What are they most known for? They are all sit down. Probably 65-percent have drive-thru. It’s a fast-casual type set up. Really the entire heartbeat of our brand is the bread. It is that homemade quality. We had a lot of people come through and say we could grow faster if we use a pre-made bread. But we haven’t found anything that meets our benchmark.

Are you planning to add more healthful dishes? We’re exploring all of our options there. But it’s not the over-arching focus. I was told to work on healthy items, and I was working with a lot of panels of females, and one of the items they all loved best was the chicken sandwich with a fat-free spicy ranch dressing, jalapeno cheese sourdough bun, alfalfa sprouts, shaved chicken breast, lettuce, tomato, a little bit of onion and guacamole. But at the end of each session, they said you should add bacon and cheese to it. It is now served with the bacon and cheese as the California Chick promotion. I understand. At home, I eat  healthfully. When I go to a restaurant, I am going to get something that really floats my boat. I’m trying to drive sales, and something that is indulgent and decadent is what moves people. We have become increasingly aware of people’s allergies and diets. To reduce sodium content is a major goal for us. We’re always looking for ways to try to address things like gluten. But so much of the [health talk] is buzzwords that are usually wielded by people who have very little connection to the foodservice world. They’re usually politicians.

So if healthful food isn’t Schlotzsky’s major focus right now, what is the company’s priority? We’re trying to grow with strategic partners in some of the areas where we’re already present, to flush out these markets and take them from open markets to closed markets.

What are the big food trends that you’re watching right now? We’re seeing fresh and local. Organic. We’re seeing people expect more ethnic authenticity – Thai, Mediterranean, Greek, Korean and Southwestern.

How does your guest define value? The guest doesn’t always define value in how much something costs. They define value in terms of what they get. They are willing to spend money if they feel they’re getting good value. An example I can give you is for years we have been testing steak sandwiches and salads. I’d try to engineer both of them based on what our current prices are, but I wasn’t hitting the mark. Finally, we decided that we were going to sell the best steak. We went out and found a slice Angus rib-eye steak. And we put it out there for $6.99 and $7.99 a piece, and [those items] came back with better value ratings than when we were testing it at $4.99.

When might we see that promotion? The steak sandwiches are going to be a holiday focus this year.

How do you cook the steak? The product comes in already seasoned, sliced and cooked, and we heat it in a conveyor oven.

What do you add to it? We have several varieties. We’re still working on which ones will be the finalists. But one [that might be available] is the Steak and Bacon Smokecheezy with smoked cheddar. It has roasted red bell peppers, crisp bacon and a touch of lightly spicy chipotle mayo. One of the others is served on a jalapeno cheese bun. It has pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, guacamole and chipotle pesto. We’ll be doing there. The other one we’re still toying with.

Source: Nation’s Restaurant News

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