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

Schlotzsky’s Signs On with ‘Healthy Dining’

August 18, 2010 – Schlotzsky’s has joined Healthy Dining and the online resource www.HealthyDiningFinder.com, taking a step forward on the healthy eating trend that is quickly gaining national momentum.

Recognizing that dining out presents a major challenge for anyone who is trying to slim down or follow a healthy lifestyle, Schlotzsky’s is teaming up with Healthy Dining’s nutrition experts to offer guests a selection of healthier menu options and corresponding nutrition information.

“At Schlotzsky’s, we have always taken pride in offering our diners healthy meals,” says Kelly Roddy, Schlotzsky’s president. “That is why this partnership is a natural fit for us and one we are excited about moving forward with.” Read more.

Source: The Food Channel

Schlotzsky’s adds healthier fare to menu

August 18, 2010 – Austin-born sandwich veteran Schlotzsky’s Deli has crafted some healthier alternatives to its regular menu.

The company, founded close to 40 years ago, is known for its round-bun, toasty creations and classic tagline “funny name. serious sandwich.” The franchise runs 350 stores in 35 states and six foreign countries, and is in the midst of its largest expansion since emerging from bankruptcy.

Polar to its partnership with indulgence maker Cinnabon Inc., leaders also wanted to appeal to customers watching their waistlines. The company recently joined Healthy Dining‘s online guide, which launched in collaboration with the National Restaurant Association with partial funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Web directory allows users to search for healthier options at restaurants in the area, narrowing options by zip code and price range. To qualify for the menu, items must include fruit, vegetables, lean protein or 100 percent whole grains. Entrees must also have less than 750 calories, 25 grams of fat and 8 or less grams of saturated fat.

Schlotzsky’s featured dishes include: a parmesan chicken caesar wrap with 560 calories and 20 grams of fat; a medium veggie sandwich with fat ranch with 480 calories and 11.5 grams of fat; and a medium smoked turkey breast with light mayonnaise on sourdough with 520 calories and 9 grams of fat, among other choices.

This compares with the shops 771 calories and 34 grams of fat in a medium “Original” with smoked ham, salami, three kinds of cheese and dressing.

Healthy Dining said featured menu items are among the best choices for a particular restaurant, but that most “do not meet the FDA criteria for ‘healthy,'” primarily because the guide doesn’t factor in sodium and cholesterol.

Source: Austin Business Journal

Schlotzsky’s Joins Healthy Dining Locator

August 13, 2010 – Schlotzsky’s has the online resource http://www.HealthyDiningFinder.com to offer guests a selection of healthier menu options and corresponding nutrition information.

“At Schlotzsky’s, we have always taken pride in offering our diners healthy meals,” said president Kelly Roddy. “That is why this partnership is a natural fit for us and one we are excited about moving forward with.”

Appearing on the Healthy Dining website are Schlotzsky’s featured dishes:

Parmesan Chicken Caesar Wrap: Grilled chicken breast and Parmesan cheese with Caesar dressing and lettuce wrapped in a flour tortilla. 560 calories, 20 grams fat

Fresh Veggie Sandwich – Medium: Cheddar cheese, cucumber slices, red onion, tomato and lettuce with fat free spicy ranch dressing and black olives on toasted wheat bread. 480 calories, 11.5 grams fat

Smoked Turkey Breast Sandwich – Medium: Smoked turkey breast and light mayonnaise with lettuce and tomato on toasted sourdough bread. 520 calories, 9 grams fat

Also appearing on the website are its vegetarian special pizza, the small chicken breast sandwich and the garden salad.

Healthydining.com was launched in collaboration with the National Restaurant Association and was developed with partial funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Source: Fast Casual