#9: Gusto 54

In a battered industry beset by toxic behaviour, a people-first approach is rare—and refreshing
(Photograph by Margeaux Walter)

Earlier in the pandemic, when contact tracing was introduced as a requirement for dining establishments in Ontario, a manager at Trattoria Nervosa—a popular Italian restaurant in Toronto’s tony Yorkville neighbourhood and one of nearly a dozen establishments under the Gusto 54 Restaurant Group banner—had an idea. Instead of keeping manual records of each guest’s details, could the restaurant not adopt a virtual system?

Within two weeks, such a system was in use, tracking the chic chianti swillers not only at Nervosa but at each of its sister eateries in Toronto too. It was the kind of savvy grassroots problem-solving that’s routine in many industries. But in the hierarchical world of hospitality? It’s almost revolutionary.

The restaurant business, with its pervasive “Yes, chef” obedience, rigid chains of command, and frequent allegations of abuse, was not known for fostering conditions in which employees felt supported and equipped to succeed during normal times. An industry-shattering global pandemic— with shifting rules, oscillating demand, and incremental bureaucracy—did little to help that.

But Gusto 54 has never been like other restaurant businesses. Founder Janet Zuccarini has built one of the few women-run hospitality empires in North America, and she and her team have consciously sought to create a different kind of food business. At its heart is a culture that empowers staff to suggest and contribute their own solutions and supports their lives in a way that goes well beyond the tips they earn.

“We were one of the few hospitality groups that offered health and wellness benefits to our employees,” president Juanita Dickson says, explaining a 2019 decision to instate an opt-in plan for all full-time staff. Instead of a traditional program of prescribed dental, vision, and prescription drug coverage, they chose a more flexible plan that includes activities that are well suited to the needs of its workforce, like yoga and meditation classes. And in late 2021, as the pandemic stubbornly persisted, Gusto 54 upgraded the benefits plan to cover 100 per cent of qualifying health and wellness spending, up from 50 per cent. Dickson reports this has been helpful in hiring staff and, crucially, retaining them.

Restaurant staffing is proving to be a growing challenge; 80 per cent of respondents to a recent survey by the food-service advocacy group Restaurants Canada said they had difficulty hiring back-of-house staff, and 42 per cent said they expect the number of unfilled positions in their establishments to increase over the next year. Amid this challenge, Gusto 54’s progressive approach to people is one to watch.

Read more from the 2022 New Innovators List