Janet Zuccarini already welcomes a million customers annually to her seven award-winning restaurants — and there’s plenty more expansion to come. With over twenty years in the food service industry, Janet shares the story of how she got started, and the hard work, grit, and confidence that propelled her to the top.
By Karen van Kampen
Janet Zuccarini’s passion for food and entertaining was born at home. The award-winning restaurateur’s Italian father passed on his recipes to Janet’s German mother whose homemade pasta and tomato sauce was legendary among Janet’s friends. “Kids would beg to come to my house,” says Janet. Her father also instilled the importance of hospitality. After working as maître d’ at some of the world’s finest hotels, “He knew how to make people feel special,” she says.
As CEO and owner of Gusto 54 Global Restaurant Group, Janet has created her own special recipe for success, mixing together a unique list of ingredients for each of her seven restaurants. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all formula,” says Janet. Whether it’s Felix Trattoria with its legendary chef and triple-A location in L.A.’s Venice Beach or Toronto’s Gusto 101 with its wine on tap and neighbourhood vibe, Janet has created unique experiences that have a million people visit her establishments every year.
She’s winning recognition and accolades as well. Gusto 101 along with Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen made Conde Nast Traveler’s Top 20 Best Restaurants in Toronto. Felix was lauded as Esquire magazine’s “#1 Best New Restaurant in America,” L.A.’s “Best New Restaurant” by L.A. Weekly, and was a finalist for a James Beard Award in the “Best New Restaurant” category. Janet was personally awarded the 2017 TEC Canada Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship — granted to an entrepreneur who possesses the kind of drive and leadership that are an inspiration to others — and she’s spent the last two seasons as a resident judge on Top Chef Canada.
Known to work 16-hour days when she’s launching a new restaurant, Janet says her father passed on an incredible work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. At 12 years old, Janet worked in her dad’s espresso machine business, repairing and hauling heavy machines with her dad constantly telling her, “you can do it.”
After high school, Janet backpacked around Europe. When she landed in Rome, “it just felt like home,” she says. Janet stayed for seven years, earning an undergraduate degree and an MBA. She remembers driving past the Colosseum on her Vespa and taking classes behind the Trevi Fountain. “It felt like I’d figured out the secret sauce of life,” she says.
“What if I lose it? I’ll just start again.”
While fellow MBA students hoped to land at a big company, Janet dreamed of working for herself. So she came up with a plan. Her father had been saving money for her wedding, yet Janet had no idea when she would get married. She told her dad, “I think it’s wasted money,” spending a fortune on a dress that you’ll wear once. Janet’s dad had her sign a piece of paper, promising she’d never come back later asking for wedding money, and she invested in a condo.
In 1996, Janet was offered an unexpected business opportunity: to become partner in Yorkville’s Trattoria Nervosa. At 30 years old, Janet sold her condo, moved back home and opened her first restaurant. People questioned Janet’s decision to invest everything in a restaurant. But she’d say, “I’m just beginning my life. What if I lose it? I’ll just start again.”
From bartender to bookkeeper, sommelier to busser, Janet worked every position at Nervosa for 16 hours a day, six days a week. “The best thing is to know every angle of your business,” says Janet, “and early on, when you have the energy.” It’s an invaluable asset when creating training procedures and protocols to prevent theft. “I knew every trick in the book,” she says.
From day one, the business was a tremendous success, says Janet, adding, “It’s a bit of a miracle business.” But her journey wasn’t an easy one. For four years, Janet says she endured “a soul-destroying partnership.” She saved her money and triggered the shotgun clause to buy out her partner. “I had to find the fortitude and strength to say, ‘I do not need to put up with this,’ and I found a way out.”
Then, at 40 years old, after a decade of “living below my means,” Janet bought the building at the corner of Toronto’s Yorkville Avenue and Bellair Street. By owning Nervosa’s triple-A location, “I knew that for the rest of my life, I would have enough money and security,” she says. She’s now being offered eight times what she paid in 2006.
Janet set out on her own, intent on doing everything herself. In February 2012, with “zero PR or press,” says Janet, Gusto 101 opened its doors with a two-hour wait list. “Gusto was a success in its own right,” says Janet. “That’s what gave me the confidence to really go for it.”
“You’ve got to keep pushing forward. If you find a roadblock going one way, you’ve got to find another angle, another street, another avenue, to get to your goal.”
Then came PAI Northern Thai Kitchen in 2014 and Gusto 54’s Catering and Commissary Kitchen in 2015. “At a certain point, the economies of scale kick in and it’s worth it to become your own supplier,” says Janet, adding that it’s a 30 per cent saving to make her own pasta. 2017 was a big year, with the launch of Kiin, Same Same, Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen as well as the award-winning Felix Trattoria in L.A. And there’s no sign of slowing anytime soon.
Gusto 501 is set to launch in 2019 and Janet plans to expand the Felix brand to New York City and Toronto in the near future. She’s also dreaming up a fine casual concept that she intends to take globally with 200 restaurants. If you think big and just go for it, says Janet, anything is possible. “If somebody else did it in the world, why can’t I?” she asks. “Is another human being better than you? No. We’re all the same here.”
The greatest determiner of success is grit and never giving up on your dream, says Janet. “You’ve got to keep pushing forward. If you find a roadblock going one way, you’ve got to find another angle, another street, another avenue, to get to your goal.”