Al Jessa

Leadership legacy: Al Jessa, President, Joey Restaurant Group

By Sean Moon

It is a long road from washing dishes in the trenches to a respected place in the executive suite of a successful restaurant chain, but Al Jessa, President of JOEY Restaurant Group, is living proof that anything is possible if a person learns to make the most of the right opportunities at the right time.

Jessa has had a long history with JOEY Restaurant Group founder Jeff Fuller and his impressive lineage of foodservice entrepreneurs, starting with Bus Fuller in 1954. Jessa started out on his own journey in the restaurant world as a dishwasher for the Fuller family operations back in 1988. Just a few short years later in 1991, Jessa had graduated to chef and by 1996 had become the Executive Chef of JOEY Restaurants, which Jeff Fuller had originally launched as JOEY Tomato Kitchen in 1992.

“This was a big time for us as we grew JOEY from six to nine stores in just three months, transitioning from pizza and pasta to global cuisine,” Jessa recalls. “Continually being given opportunities to grow with this company is a huge reason why I am where I am today. Now, as president of JOEY, it is important to me to continue to offer growth opportunity for our partners.”

Although Jeff Fuller’s initial casual Italian concept proved to be successful, it was speaking more to the family sector where competition was fierce and patrons tend to be more economical. So, the decision was made to re-invent JOEY and in 2000, Fuller moved the concept away from the Italian, family friendly environment with spaghetti lights hanging from the ceiling, to a more premium casual, adult-friendly concept complete with a lush patio, acoustically sound dining room, and hip lounge. Today, JOEY has grown to 26 locations across Western Canada, Ontario, California and Washington.

Survives challenges

Jessa says that despite tough economic times from 2005 to 2010, JOEY was able to grow from $48 million in revenue to $100 million.

“It was our biggest challenge to date, at the time,” says Jessa. “A huge part of overcoming this was our ability to create realities that weren’t going to happen for us. Determining what we wanted to be, not what we could be due to circumstances, drove us forward. We created a vision of building a world-class company, famous for developing elite leaders, altering the way business is done and making a positive difference everywhere. This was our mantra and we made every effort to create it, from bringing on and creating great leaders, developing education and apprenticeship programs and always being driven by innovative ideas.”

Jessa says his early passion for the hospitality industry was likely the result of his mother being a good cook. He remembers the joys of entertaining family and friends with meals his Mom had prepared and says it was such memories that kept him gravitating towards the hospitality industry. That early passion for entertaining through food has evolved over the years, developing into an intense focus on innovation and execution.

Executing excellence

“I am passionate about only one thing: Execution,” says Jessa. “I am not particularly creative. My good friend and colleague Chris Mills (our Executive Chef) is creative. I love execution — every dish going out to the customer the same way, with the same specs, the same flavor and presentation every day, every week. That takes real talent. I am passionate about executing all aspects of hospitality including creating a profit model for the restaurants that gives customers remarkable value, while at the same time respectable returns for our shareholders.”

Having just turned 50 this year, Jessa says his main focus these days is transferring what he has learned during his 20–year history at JOEY to the next group of leaders.

“We have always said we are in the people business and are committed to our employee partners reaching their full potential through training programs, mentorship and continual coaching. We have dozens of cases of people starting as an expo, server or dishwasher that are now Regional Managers, VP of Culinary Operations, or VP of Marketing. There are 73 chefs in the organization who have received their Red Seal, six chefs who have their CCC designation, and 10 staff who received their ACC. The food service business is about much more than food.”

Creates compelling vision

Even though JOEY continues to grow, Jessa believes there are more important goals than simply opening more restaurants. He says he wants to leave the company with a secure foundation and with a vision for the future that the next set of stakeholders are completely aligned on.

“I am always looking to be to be innovative and relevant rather than just focusing on expansion. We don’t believe in growing for the sake of growing. We want to ensure that we pick the right new locations and that our current locations are thriving. It’s about relevancy over growth. The soul of JOEY is to strive to be the best in the industry. We are focused on winning the guest vote – we want to earn that. We want to always ensure we are innovating and have great value in what we offer to our guests.”

Sean Moon is the managing editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News.

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