When Janet Zuccarini bought her first restaurant, she’d only been back in Toronto for two weeks after living in Italy. She’d also never waited a table. But Zuccarini, now a celebrity chef and restaurant mogul, had earned an undergrad and MBA while overseas, and when a great opportunity presented itself—“It’s a long story,” she laughs—she jumped at the opportunity to apply her business skills to the restaurant world. “I knew I had the soul of an entrepreneur, but I didn’t know anything else.”
Twenty-two years later, Trattoria Nervosa is a bustling Italian restaurant in the heart of Toronto’s swanky Yorkville neighbourhood (Beyoncé grabbed pizza there, don’t you know). Seven more restaurants and a catering business have joined Zuccarini’s first restaurant to form the Gusto 54 empire, which serves more than a million customers a year. She joined Top Chef Canada and became a reality-TV star, and she relocated (part-time) to L.A. to open Venice Beach hot spot Felix, lauded by Esquire as the best new restaurant in the country. But even if it seems like Gusto 54 exploded overnight, it didn’t. Zuccarini spent 14 long years growing the trattoria the old-fashioned way before any of the headline-worthy action above. “I built this company so slowly and made sure the foundation was so strong,” says Zuccarini. “I waited and saved my money and when I saw the time was right, I expanded.”
In the fickle restaurant industry, where failure is the expected outcome, Gusto 54’s successes are too frequent to dismiss as luck. “Restaurants are such a tough business that if you don’t have fantastic business acumen, you’re not going to make it,” says Zuccarini. When Gusto went international, Zuccarini knew the workload was about to far surpass what she could carry. So she hired Juanita Dickson, a marketer interested in customer experience and brand building, and a good friend. “Obviously we’d be spending a lot of time together, and I want to work with someone I really like,” says Zuccarini.
Dickson looked closely at Zuccarini’s Toronto restaurants, all of which had earned cult-like followings among foodies. “To me, culture is the number-one priority,” says Dickson. It’s a common sentiment in many businesses, though particularly true in service and hospitality. Ensuring a customer has a good experience depends not only on the brand-minded brains in top management, but also on the kitchen staff, servers and bussers. “We recognize that these people make or break our brand,” says Dickson.
Luckily, she says, “the culture was already there, we just didn’t have the words around it to protect it.” Dickson got right to work identifying highly engaged employees and increasing efforts to retain them. Gusto is currently rolling out health benefits for full-time staff—a rarity in the restaurant business. An online training app dubbed “Gusto University” lets workers learn at their leisure. There are also free birthday lunches and half off everything you can eat. All of which keep Gusto’s staff feeling—and spreading—the good vibes that every restaurant needs.