One of the brightest stars in the eatertainment industry, Janet Zuccarini knows how to successfully integrate food and vibes components to create remarkably welcoming eateries. A talent, an empowering mentor, and a visionary, she runs exhilarating restaurants where unpretentiously perceptive to charmingly elegant people enjoy the fresh and tasty food.
Savvy with finance with years of experience living in Rome, savouring ethnic dishes, Janet Zuccarini is the owner and CEO of Gusto 54 Restaurant Group and a resident judge at Top Chef Canada. Janet’s restaurants, Trattoria Nervosa, Gusto 101, Pai Northern Thai Kitchen and Kiin, Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen are among top laid-back favourites serving wonderful, flavour-filled foods and delicious cocktails in Toronto. Her LA Hotspot Felix Trattoria has been awarded “Restaurant of the Year” by Eater LA, “#1 Best New Restaurant in America” by Esquire magazine, and one of Los Angeles Magazine’s 10 Best New Restaurants of 2017, finalist at James Beard Foundation Award, is the dope place frequented by Leonardo Di Caprio and Frances McDormand.
Jupilings: How do you describe yourself?
JZ: Positive. Tenacious. Hard-working. Fun. Zest for life. Lover of food, business, and travel.
Jupilings: What qualities made you successful in the hospitality industry?
JZ: Being in the restaurant business isn’t easy. In fact, it’s probably one of the most challenging industries you could choose as an entrepreneur. When I opened my first restaurant over twenty years ago, I worked sixteen-hour days, seven days a week. I did everything from the bartender to bookkeeper to bussing tables and seating guests. Knowing every angle of your business, and knowing it really well is a huge advantage when it comes to making those big decisions. As a restauranteur, you have to expect challenges, and then have the passion for keeping pushing forward. If you have a genuine love for the work you do, no roadblock or setback will get in the way of your goal.
Jupilings: What are the branding principles in hospitality/lifestyle that you want to manifest in your restaurants?
JZ: I’m fortunate to have seven successful restaurants under my belt, with two set to launch in 2019, which is incredibly exciting. One thing I’ve known from day one is that you can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to restaurants – something seen in all of my concepts. For example, with Felix in Los Angeles, we knew we had to make it a destination restaurant, and that meant partnering with an exceptionally talented chef and locking down a piece of property on one of the most sought-after foodie streets in the world. With Chubby’s we wanted to bring the warmth and vibrancy of Jamaica – a place that I fell in love with after going there many times on vacation – to Toronto. The strategies for those concepts are vastly different from Gusto 101 or Nervosa which are designed to be neighbourhood fixtures that withstand the test of time. The one common thread that ties all of the restaurants together is the idea of a transporting experience, complete with delicious relevant food, inspiring design, and soulful hospitality. As long as I am grounded in these three pillars, I feel free to innovate and expand wherever my imagination takes me.
Jupilings: What are the elements you consider when it comes to conceptualising a new venue?
JZ: Location is certainly key. When we made the jump from just a few restaurants to a global restaurant group in 2015, we solidified our mission to build the most culturally relevant and celebrated collection of restaurants and innovative culinary experiences in the world. Location plays a massive role in bringing this mission to life. Whenever possible, I seek to purchase the real estate in which my restaurants are housed. I believe that design is equally important as incredible food, and purchasing real estate affords me the opportunity to invest in infrastructure and have full control over the details. With any concept, our goal is to create a transporting experience.
JZ: As my first international endeavour, Felix has a special place in my heart. When the opportunity to open a restaurant on Abbott Kinney fell in my lap, I knew I had to bring my A-game. Felix is deeply rooted in the culinary traditions of regional Italy combined with the fresh ingredients grown by California’s greatest family farms. When you walk into Felix, we want you to feel like you’re at home – everything from the food to the atmosphere feels comforting, but in the same breath, extraordinary. Our Chef, Evan Funke, brings the time-honoured tradition of pasta fatta mano or handmade pasta to Felix, resulting in some incredible dishes. We’re so grateful to have been honoured as both “Best New Restaurant in America” by Esquire Magazine and “Restaurant of the Year” by Eater LA. The transporting experience at Felix is next level, but you’ll just have to try it yourself to see.
Jupilings: Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
JZ: My first job was working with my father who brought the first espresso machine to Canada, and I would, as this tiny 12-year-old, haul espresso machines from restaurant to restaurant to help my father out in his business. Seeing how hard he worked first-hand instilled within me a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. I remember he would always say, “Janet – whatever you do, work for yourself!” Reflecting on where life has taken me, I’m sure his words were a massive influence on the career path I’ve chosen.
Jupilings: As a female entrepreneur can you, please share five tips to achieve one’s career or entrepreneurial aspirations in the hospitality industry?
JZ: Male, female, it doesn’t matter – we’re all just humans here. If someone else in the world can succeed, why can’t I? All it takes is a big dream, and the grit, hard work, and passion for making it a reality. But advice specific to hospitality? You better want it and want it bad. This business isn’t an easy one, and you have to be prepared for things to go wrong. At the end of the day, if things go sideways, it’s going to be your passion for what you do that will give you the confidence to get back up and make it work.
Jupilings: What’s one branding lesson you’ve learned in your career and ventures?
JZ: Authenticity is always central to everything I do. Beyond having incredible food and design, knowing your brand voice is one of the most important things to have locked down – know who you are and who you aren’t; speak to your audience, not at them; and be authentic. Especially with social media, everyone feels like they play a part in your brand. We have thousands of loyal customers both on and offline, and they will let you know if something isn’t right. That’s why when it comes to hiring, I’m very selective with who is part of the team. From the person who manages our Instagram accounts to the server that brings out the plate of food, each team member is an extension of the brand. I’ve learned only to hire awesome, and to invest in those people to ensure they have the tools and training to bring each brand to life.
Jupilings: How do you deal with setbacks?
JZ: Having been in this industry for some time now, I’ve developed a thick skin for any setback that comes my way. Especially when it comes to the restaurant industry, you have to expect the unexpected – but having an indomitable spirit is what allows me to keep going. Sometimes setbacks can be your greatest opportunities. Whether it was a hard lesson that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life or a mistake that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, I try not to be afraid of setbacks as I continue to build my company. I remember when we were building Gusto 101 we ran into some troubles with the construction of the foundation. This roadblock turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to us as it led to the creation of a basement with a private wine cellar – one of our most celebrated features in which we now host private dinners.
Jupilings: Who inspires you and why?
JZ: One of my earliest inspirations for business was my father who owned his own espresso machine company. Working alongside my father taught me about entrepreneurialism and the hard work it takes to run your own business. My father was also one of those people who knew how to make people feel special – I have fond memories of homecooked meals growing up where my friends and family would pile around the table to devour anything my parents would serve us. This sense of soulful hospitality is something that is deeply instilled in me and is something I make a point of incorporating into every restaurant I open.
Jupilings: What does it mean to be a woman today & what are the unique traits that women bring to your industry?
JZ: Today women have a lot of opportunities, and being a woman shouldn’t be seen as a disadvantage. If anything, it’s an advantage – women have an intuitive sensibility around details that most men just don’t possess naturally. This is a massive strength for me when it comes to considering everything from the ingredients of each dish to the unique design details of my restaurants. Something as small as having purse hooks under each bar or good lighting in the bathroom are features that can so easily be missed but make a massive impact when it comes to overall experience.
Yes, society puts pressure on women to follow a certain path – go to school, have a career, get married, have kids – but now, more than ever before women feel empowered to take a path less travelled. When I was younger, I asked my father for the wedding money he had been saving to help with a down payment on a condo. He even made me sign a paper saying I wouldn’t come back to ask for wedding money down the line. Years later, I sold that condo and used that money to buy into the partnership at Trattoria Nervosa. I’ve never looked back since. Don’t be intimidated to enter into a male-dominated industry – it is just an opportunity to put your own unique stamp on the way things are done.
Jupilings: What is your life motto?
JZ: The greatest determiner of success is grit.