Janet Zuccarini is a serial restaurateur and entrepreneur who opened her first restaurant, Trattoria Nervosa, in Toronto more than 20 years ago and has since taken the restaurant world by storm opening up Gusto 101, Gusto 501, Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen, Felix Trattoria, among others. As sole owner and visionary behind the Gusto 54 group, Janet also opened Gusto 54’s catering company and a shop, and has plans for more restaurants to open in the US in the coming years. She also stars as a resident judge Resident Judge on Top Chef Canada’s All-Stars Season 5 and Top Chef Canada Season 6 airing in 2018.
Britt sat down with Janet to learn more about her back-story, how she runs her 100% privately owned business, and what lessons she found most important on her entrepreneurial path.
WHO: Janet Zuccarini, owner of GUSTO 54
WHERE: Felix Trattoria, Venice, CALIFORNIA. Small table in the back…by some pretty wallpaper.
WHEN: December 18, 2017. 10 AM. It was a beautiful morning. 65 degrees. Clear. Sunny.
Smoothie of Choice: Moon Juice.
It was almost fate that Janet and I met. But that is usually how LIFE works for me. Felix Trattoria, a now staple of Abbot Kinney BLVD in Venice, California opened its doors in Spring 2017, and despite the difficulty in getting a reservation due to its major popularity (rightfully so, The Food is beyond incredible and PS ESQUIRE just named it Restaurant of the Year 2017). I still found myself there a handful of times indulging in a glass of red and the infamous Cacio e Pepe…and focaccia if I was really hungry. Even if that meant hitting it up at a senior spesh (special…I abbreviate a lot. Get used to it) hour around 5:30 pm just so I could squeeze in at the bar or by the host stand! I am OK with an early dinner if the food is worth it.
For those of you who know me, you know I loooooooove to eat. One of those times was an early summer evening in August post riding bikes and drinking rosé with friends, I ended up meeting and chatting with a man named Demetrio, who told me about the Toronto-based restaurant group he worked for who owned Felix, as he was a part of the Gusto 54 Team down here in Venice for the opening. Little did I know, it was Janet who was the soul, brains, and LIFE behind this entire operation.
Cut to end of November when I had started to reach out to females that I wanted to participate in this project and my dear friend Joy Limanon who is a Food Friend of mine (and future participant of this project…stay tuned. She is wonderful) told me I should look into Janet Zuccarini. One google search and I was sold. So that is how it happened. Effortless. It was like life was offering me little synchronicity fairies and signs back in August when I met Demetrio, even before I knew what this project was. So when we finally sat down together I was quick to learn that she was the SOLE OWNER of GUSTO 54, yes she did it by herself which she started 21 years ago…
Her father was a large influence in her passion for food…(dads are great…aren’t they?!?)
“Well my father brought the first espresso machine into Canada so he started Coffee Culture. And I started working for him at the age of 12 as many Italians do…they have kids for the purpose of them working within the family business. And my father was like a chef and really into eating well and everything made from scratch. My mother is German so my Italian father had to teach my mother how to cook. So we just ate whole food, pasta made from scratch. People would beg to come over to my house for lunch whereas I’d go to friends’ houses for lunch and they would have a can of Chef Boyardee and a can opener and I go, “What’s that? You do what? And so now I look back and see that such an influence on me loving food and cooking was being brought up in a household like that.”
That’s funny because my grandmother is German and Grandfather is Italian on my mother’s side…SOUL SISTERS :) Growing up, something that my grandparents and parents instilled in me was gathering around the table for a meal… Her too…
THE EVENT OF FOOD…
“Yeah and bringing family together. You know now we’re so used to being on our phones and on social media. But those traditions have really stuck with me where I need to stop and have a hot meal. And I’ve never stopped that tradition. Doesn’t matter how busy I get, I stop to have a hot meal three times a day and sit with friends and family.”
CONNECTION…HUMAN CONNECTION AND INTERACTION…so funny she should mention that. (PS I AGREE)
In a time when people are so distracted by this (the phone) and computers… I think that’s why I identified with your restaurant (FELIX)so much. But I got that feeling that you … it’s not just about the food, it’s about the SOUL. And I am such an empathetic, feeling person. So I appreciated feeling that SOUL when I walked into Felix. And when I was doing my research and seeing all of these awards you have won (which is wonderful)… the thing I identified and resonated with was that you bring soul to all of your spaces. I think that’s a special quality and I admire that in you.
“Thank you. Well that’s definitely a goal. And I think people feel that when you walk into a restaurant. We really wanted to be a transporting experience, maybe even more so with Felix, which Evan’s cooking has a casalinga — that means the housewife or the nonna’s cooking (familial). And we really want to impart that when you walk in the door. So I’m really happy that you felt that.”
How did you connect with Chef Evan?
“I came to LA about two years ago and I just landed in town. I had just a couple of connections and I started networking and meeting people and trying to figure out this entire project. So in meeting people they would say, “How can I help you?” And I said, “I need to connect with a great chef, a chef who has a following.” I knew I wasn’t going to start here as a Canadian woman just landing here opening up a random restaurant. I wanted to connect with a chef who was extremely talented, and who had a built-in following. And a food writer by the name of Kevin West randomly sent me an email to say, “I don’t know where you are in your search of a chef but Evan Funke is available and he’s wickedly talented.” And that’s all I needed and I flew Evan to Toronto to cook for me and a few people on my team. And when he cooked for me...”
SHE WAS SOLD
It was just a done deal. “And I told him…” I said, “Your food is casalinga.” And he had never heard anyone describe his cooking that way. When I said those words to him he stuck out his hand and he’s like, “We have a deal.”
“Basically he’s like, “You get me.” And I was just so moved by his cooking because it really did remind me of my nonna’s cooking, my father’s cooking, my mother’s cooking. And so you really have a visceral reaction to it.”
Right, it’s that emotional attachment to it.
“Really emotional attachment to his cooking.”
EVERYTHING IS FRESH…
“Evan starts his morning every day going to the farmer’s market. We’re always going to have our regional pastas that we do. But some pastas are going to change based on what he’s finding really fresh at the farmer’s market. And he might go to one farm and try their peas for the day and then go across the way, try the peas from that farmer. And he’ll go, “Today it’s this farmer’s peas.” Because he’s looking for the best of the best.
You have to put a lot of faith in your team. And I think that speaks volumes to you selecting good people to run all of your businesses.
“Well it’s absolutely the number one biggest key to business I think…picking the greatest people you can possibly pick. And with Evan, I never had to think about the food and what he’s cooking. I entrust him 100%. And, you know, I can be left to do kind of what I do, because I’m not a chef, I’m not cooking. Picking your team is the number one key to success.”
Angela Davis (my life mentor… and LARGE inspiration for this project) ALWAYS says…you are the total sum of the five people you surround yourself with the most. And it’s true, who you spend your time with is a large reflection of you.
“You’re not only the team that you work with but your friends and people you choose to hang out with. You want to play a better game, pick better people to hang out with.”
Yes. She (Angela) always says..Who’s in your boat? Are they paddling or are they poking holes?
Janet didn’t just snap her fingers and become a MEGA BUSINESS WOMAN over night. There were sacrifices…
“Your 30s, early 30s, I think that’s the time when you’ve gotta put your head down, you’ve gotta work really hard, there’s many sacrifices to be made. And I think anything worthwhile in life does not come easily. And my early days may have not been easy but when it’s your passion, you don’t even feel it. I was working 17 hours a day, took one day off a week. I didn’t take a vacation in nearly five years but you’ve gotta pay your dues. And for the bigger picture which is I wanted freedom, I wanted to sit on top of my company and not be a technician within my company. So laying the groundwork for that future of creating your own life, you get to create how your life looks. But I don’t think you get out of the grinds phase…you have to go through it.
There’s not many people with a business background coming into the restaurant business. But, you know, to have both those sides of the brain working… so my training is in business and I have my MBA… but I got my MBA in Rome, whilst falling in love with cooking and food and that kind of lifestyle. So I married these two passions, and I’m using two sides of my brain. But I guess my business side is not a typical side to have in this business and I think that’s why I’m here… 21 years later.”
SHE GIVES BACK TOO…
“So I think that whatever you have, you have to look at giving back. So if you’re a person that has time then give away your time. If you’re smart then educate. If you’ve got money, then you’ve gotta give that away.
As we’ve grown more and more we’re giving back more and more in Canada. And we look for causes that have meaning to us. That means us, our core team, and we talk about it as a restaurant group. My passions are women, giving back to underprivileged women. Developing women in business. And also mainly feeding children is what we do. And our latest program is called Mini Chef. We partner with schools in Canada and we bring in classrooms of children, we put them through a program that lasts for a few weeks. And we teach them about nutrition and how to cook. So that’s very close to my heart.
And we also are involved with Breakfast for Learning. So we feed children, hungry children, in Toronto right now. And in every city that we operate, we’re looking for who do we partner with? So we give away tens of thousands of dollars in a variety of different ways. On our menu we have Margarita Mondays where a dollar for every margarita pizza we sell goes to a variety of different charities. We’re constantly looking how we can give back and we devote a lot of time to it. And we involve our team. Some of our team members go in the morning and feed these children breakfast. So any way that people want to be involved they can be involved.”
If you were to write a letter to your young self, what would you say or what piece of advice would you give?
“You know there were times when I was young that I would worry about the future and how things were gonna turn out. Really it’s just … the letter that I would write myself is your life is an empty slate, it’s a story that you get to write. You get to create your destiny. It’s not by luck or karma or anything. It’s really you get to create your future and it can look any way you want it to look. And I think sometimes we contain ourselves or we live with glass ceilings, especially women.”
That was my goal (of this project) …to celebrate and elevate you. And the other females I have involved. Because you’re so wonderful. And in my opinion even for young girls…heck..even my age…actually, ANY AGE. I cannot imagine growing up right now with social media. And don’t get me wrong I’m the first person to Instagram and Instastory five million times a day but I think it has created this false sense of reality and young girls idolizing a life that is edited by Factune and filters.
What does SUCCESS look like to you?
“Grit. Grit. Grit. And drive. I think the greatest determiner of success is grit. Women, we’re still the underdogs, right? So I hope that if I can inspire women. I’m a single owner of a restaurant group, there’s not many women that own restaurant groups with multiple locations. And also I own the majority of my real estate. I buy real estate, I develop the real estate.”
SO WHAT’S NEXT… but before we get there…CAN WE TALK ABOUT HER GLOWING SKIN?
“I cannot believe you’re saying that right now.”
Is it the olive oil?! You have an olive oil line don’t you?
“Yes. My family has an organic olive oil grove in Italy. So I think the olive oil, it cannot hurt. But I definitely eat and almost drink olive oil so if that’s been helping … but thank you. An unexpected compliment.”
OK SO REALLY WHAT IS NEXT?
“I currently have nine restaurants in Toronto so I feel like I’m okay in the city of Toronto right now. And I want to expand more with Evan. More in California, more in Los Angeles. Right now we (Gusto) are exploring opportunities in New York. We want to do more in the US and LA, most likely in NY next. And we’re developing a whole casual concept. So it’d be like a more Roman Trattoria, at a more casual price point than Felix is. Every restaurant that I open — it takes two years out of my life to open a restaurant and a lot of money. A lot of capital, a lot of labor. It’s labor intensive, it’s capital intensive, it’s time intensive. So we would like in our business model to have one concept that’s just easier to scale. So I am going to be working more on expanding with Evan’s talent.
STORY TELLING WITH FOOD
“You know, the restaurant business is about delivering on many fronts. And it depends on the type of restaurant you’re doing. So whatever type of restaurant you’re doing you have to ask yourself, have you picked the right location for that type of business? Are you producing the right food? Are you producing food that people want to eat? Are you producing a kind of décor or feeling in the room that people want to sit in? Are you delivering on the service side? you gotta deliver on all those fronts. People do not just go to restaurants because the food is great. Are you delivering on that promise of that experience that you want to deliver? So you have to hit it right on all those fronts. You’re telling a story, you’re creating a movie. And you know all those factors have to play in. But it depends on the type of restaurant you’re doing. Is it destination? Is it based on location? Is it fast casual? You have to create that whole story and then build that.”