Jason’s Deli | Delights in Giving Back
She’s a businesswoman, a philanthropist and a mom, with the type of welcoming spirit that makes everyone around her feel comfortable; Diana Willis, co-owner of Jason’s Deli of Southwest Florida. Hers is a familiar face at charity and special events across Southwest Florida. The fashionable go-getter’s best accessory is her smile.
Born in northern California, Willis grew up in Beaumont, Texas, the home of Jason’s Deli, and the place where she met Scott, her husband of 30 years. The couple had an investment interest in Jason’s when the company was first developing its franchise opportunity.
Willis liked the idea because, “It was a privately run business. Not all chains are created equal. Jason’s was a family run business and that’s the way we are.”
But at the time they decided to put their money in a more established brand, McDonald’s. Success followed for the Willis’, Jason’s grew and the couple was able to sell the business they built up in order to sink their teeth into their first franchise choice.
At the time there was only one deli in Jacksonville and one under construction in Tampa, so Florida was a virtually untapped market. Willis remembers, “We decided to come down on vacation, stayed on Marco, started driving around and how do you not fall in love with this area.”
That was in 1999. Her two boys, Brandon and Mason, were in 7th and 5th grades and grew up in the business. Blending work and family felt seamless to the businesswoman as she says, “You’re in a business you love, with the people you love…our kids were always part of the fabric of what we do.”
Both boys worked in the deli as teenagers; one was even fired. Can you imagine being the manager who was forced to terminate the owner’s son because he came in late one too many times?
About working with her husband, Willis says, “We have our own strengths in the business, they overlap some but we bring different things to the table. When it comes down to it, we have a great communication…mutual respect for what we do and we play to each others strengths that way.”
As a company and as a couple, they give generously to numerous charities and local causes. The ones that focus on single mothers and children are especially dear to Willis’ heart. She doesn’t just volunteer, she is the Board Chair for the PACE Center for Girls, Lee County.
She says with conviction, “PACE is my passion project 100%. Magic happens at that school for girls.” About her community involvement, she says, “I’m not in something just to say I’m in it. I want to make a difference and I have limited time. If I’m going to spend my time somewhere, I want it to have value.”
Willis is also a big supporter of FGCU athletics and the university’s hospitality program saying, “From the beginning we made a commitment to grow an educational piece that would contribute to the future of the whole community.”
Her employees are like extended family and she gives them the chance to get into the action by sponsoring a Habitat for Humanity home. She says, “It’s something the whole team can be a part of, community service.”
Although Willis’ title is that of “co-owner,” she likes the designation of Chief Motivational Officer explaining, “I’m just a cheerleader for what we do. If someone is having a bad day I lend a perspective to hopefully make them feel better.”
Each week she shares with her team leadership wisdoms, inspirational daily bread messages and wellness information. So who motivates the motivator? Willis says, “My people, my family, my friends, my community. I’m motivated to see other people’s success.”
When not working on the business or in the community, Willis loves to travel and is a wine enthusiast. When her sons left home, she converted one of their bedrooms into a wine cellar, complete with temperature and humidity controls.
December marks the 16th anniversary of the first Jason’s Deli, on Cypress Lake Drive in Fort Myers. The business has since grown to six locations from Naples to Sarasota. While there are no current plans for more expansion, the possibility has not been ruled out.
About Willis’ success in Southwest Florida she says, “We believe in investing in people that’s our secret ingredient, that’s the key ingredient.”