Restau­ra­teur Janet Zuc­carini on cook­ing up a suc­cess­ful busi­ness model


JANET ZUC­CARINI LIVES TO EAT. “I THOUGHT ev­ery­one was pas­sion­ate about food, but it’s not [true]. Some peo­ple find it an ab­so­lute job to eat, and when I meet them they’re alien to me,” says the CEO and owner of Gusto 54 Restau­rant Group.

Born and raised in Toronto, Zuc­carini’s Ital­ian fa­ther taught her Ger­man mother the recipes of his ma­tri­arch and passed his own pas­sion for food on to his fam­ily. “My fa­ther could have been a chef. I grew up with ev­ery meal be­ing an im­por­tant part of the day: a hot break­fast, lunch and din­ner. In grade school, I had kids beg­ging to come over and have lunch at my house be­cause we had beau­ti­ful Ital­ian food ev­ery day,” she says.

At 18 years old, Zuc­carini moved to Italy to pur­sue her ed­u­ca­tion, and grad­u­ated with an MBA from Bos­ton Univer­sity in Rome. As a stu­dent, Zuc­carini’s love for food blos­somed. “On my walk home, I’d pick up a few in­gre­di­ents from the farmer’s mar­ket ev­ery sin­gle day. It was re­ally farm-totable back then be­cause that’s how all Ital­ians eat,” she says, “I started cook­ing my nonna’s recipes, and my fam­ily recipes. I’d cook for my friends, and they’d say, ‘You need to open up a restau­rant.’”

The peer pres­sure worked. In 1996, she opened celeb-mag­net Trat­to­ria Ner­vosa in Toronto’s Yorkville area, and has since gone on to launch ad­di­tional Ital­ian restos, as well as eater­ies that of­fer Thai and Ja­maican cui­sine. Mar­ry­ing her pas­sions for busi­ness and cui­sine, Zuc­carini has been tri­umphant in an in­cred­i­bly chal­leng­ing in­dus­try.

“Many peo­ple in the restau­rant busi­ness do not have a busi­ness back­ground. I think that’s why I’m here decades later and why I haven’t closed a restau­rant. And why all my restau­rants have grown ev­ery year, year af­ter year. I un­der­stand run­ning some­thing by the num­bers and look­ing at the num­bers ev­ery day.”

Buy­ing the real es­tate and build­ings of her es­tab­lish­ments is one of Zuc­carini’s many savvy busi­ness moves. “I’ve worked hard, but it’s never felt like a job. I wish it upon ev­ery­one to con­nect with their pas­sion, or pas­sions.”


Restau­rants are no­to­ri­ously risky busi­ness, and male-dom­i­nated, too. Where few sur­vive, Zuc­carini has man­aged to thrive. Whether long-time es­tab­lish­ments or new ven­tures, her Toron­to­based lo­ca­tions have earned ac­co­lades, but she’s found the most ful­fill­ment through her cross-border achieve­ment. “I’ve built this com­pany by my­self and, be­ing a Cana­dian woman restau­ra­teur land­ing in L.A., my big­gest high­light is open­ing in an­other coun­try,” she says.

Led by a vi­sion to set up shop on her favourite street, the iconic Ab­bot Kin­ney Boule­vard, Zuc­carini con­sid­ers tim­ing, luck and net­work­ing as key in­gre­di­ents to the suc­cess of Fe­lix Trat­to­ria. “It was find­ing this in­cred­i­bly tal­ented chef, Evan Funke, whose food is the best Ital­ian cook­ing I’ve ever had in my life, bar none. It was hit­ting the road and try­ing to meet with as many peo­ple as I could here in this amaz­ing foodie town,” she says. All the hard work has paid off. Since open­ing in April 2017, Fe­lix Trat­to­ria has been named best restau­rant in the United States by Esquire mag­a­zine, and was the num­ber two ranked best new restau­rant of 2017 by Los An­ge­les Mag­a­zine. Ear­lier this year it was also a fi­nal­ist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restau­rant. “We’re on ev­ery­body’s lists. It feels a lit­tle bit sur­real right now, and it makes me very proud to have this im­pact in L.A.”

Be­hind the scenes, it’s a long road from culi­nary aha mo­ment to ac­tu­ally open­ing the doors to cus­tomers. De­spite be­ing a sea­soned trav­eller, Zuc­carini doesn’t find the ride any less bumpy. “Once you open the restau­rant it’s so great, but be­ing un­der con­struc­tion feels like you’re not in con­trol, and other peo­ple keep telling you ‘Oh, hey Janet, bad news, we need more time and more money.’ That’s all I hear ev­ery day,” she says, “I fi­nance ev­ery­thing my­self with cash. I’m sell­ing piz­zas at one restau­rant, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing cash so I can pour it into the next project. There isn’t a point when it isn’t stress­ful be­cause ev­ery project, no mat­ter what job I’m build­ing, it’s al­ways dou­ble the time, and dou­ble the bud­get.” Ac­quir­ing fi­nan­cial in­vestors has never been in Zuc­carini’s play­book, but as the cost of launch­ing a chic eatery soars into multi-mil­lion-dol­lar ter­ri­tory that could change. “I’ve spent 21 years fi­nanc­ing my own projects, not many peo­ple do that. I’m go­ing to see if there’s an­other model out there,” she says.


Split­ting her time be­tween Toronto and L.A., Zuc­carini is al­ways on the go both pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally. “I suf­fer from get­ting bored quite eas­ily, so I’m al­ways want­ing to try new sports. I’ll do any­thing where I’m mov­ing my body.”

A cer­ti­fied yoga teacher, who has been prac­tic­ing for more than two decades, she rounds out her phys­i­cal fit­ness with ski­ing, bik­ing, surf­ing and — wait for it — skate­board­ing. And five morn­ings a week she can be found pur­su­ing her lat­est ob­ses­sion: ten­nis. What started as a novel form of ac­tiv­ity quickly turned into some­thing se­ri­ous. “I find it so sat­is­fy­ing be­cause I have to for­get ev­ery­thing ex­cept hit­ting that ball. It’s strate­gic, it’s ath­letic, you’re out­side in the sun­shine. Ev­ery­thing about it be­came this ex­treme pas­sion,” she says. Step­ping on to the courts also lead Zuc­carini to a deeper dis­cov­ery. “I re­ally never had a sport. I’ve al­ways done yoga and I med­i­tate, ride my bike, I do things by my­self. All of a sud­den, I was play­ing a lot of dou­bles matches, play­ing against other peo­ple, and it ap­peals to my com­pet­i­tive side,” she says “It ticks so many boxes, and I’m so happy to have found a sport a bit later…I thought I know what I do, and what I don’t do. But I was like wow: this is amaz­ing.”

While ten­nis keeps Zuc­carini on her toes, med­i­ta­tion keeps her grounded. She re­calls at­tend­ing Vi­pas­sana Med­i­ta­tion, a 10-day si­lent re­treat, as one of the hard­est things she’s ever done. It also de­liv­ered a sig­nif­i­cant re­ward. “It brought me deep into med­i­ta­tion, and showed me that it is, I think, the key to life,” she says, “If you have a strong med­i­ta­tion prac­tice you will process the garbage that is hap­pen­ing in­side of you and in­side your mind, in­stead of it swirling around and land­ing in you at a cel­lu­lar level. You process, and you re­lease things, so that you’re clear and ac­tu­ally happy.”

Zuc­carini finds her daily dose of clar­ity through a 20-minute morn­ing ses­sion. “If I have other things go­ing on in my life I’ll use med­i­ta­tion as a way to process that. Feel­ing peace­ful and loved, and feel­ing the feel­ing of love to­wards my­self and ev­ery­one else is my barom­e­ter. If I start to feel cranky I think, ‘Uh-oh, you bet­ter med­i­tate, girl.’”


To­day, Zuc­carini is in­tent on shar­ing her pas­sion for food in many ways. You can catch her as a judge on Top Chef Canada (on Food Net­work Canada). Zuc­carini and her team have also de­vel­oped a char­ity, Gusto Gives Back, and launched a pro­gram called Mini Chefs. “We teach kids about nu­tri­tion and how to cook. In our schools, kids are not be­ing taught how to eat well — is there any­thing more im­por­tant than that? To pre­vent dis­ease and to live a life where you’re thriv­ing, it’s your fuel,” she says.

At home, Zuc­carini en­er­gizes by start­ing the day with healthy fats, or­ganic greens and ni­trate-free meat — plus a dose of caf­feine. “I’m a big break­fast per­son, but the first thing I do is hit my espresso ma­chine. I’ll have fried eggs, ba­con and avo­cado, or some­times sautéed spinach. Fat is my friend. It fu­els me for hours, and I don’t think about food or have any crav­ings.”

With her com­pany set on a path of steady growth, Zuc­carini is fo­cused on build­ing an em­pire that ref lects her val­ues. “I have a deep com­mit­ment to peo­ple within my com­pany, to cre­ate amaz­ing lives for them, and to de­velop them. I have a com­mit­ment to our cus­tomers to give them the best hos­pi­tal­ity and to of­fer soul­ful ex­pe­ri­ences that trans­port them. And I have a com­mit­ment to the en­vi­ron­ment to be sus­tain­able, and to giv­ing back.”

Hav­ing done plenty of her own heavy lift­ing, Zuc­carini is also quick to credit suc­cess to her team. “Sur­round your­self with the most in­cred­i­ble peo­ple you pos­si­bly can. That’s what I’ve got­ten bet­ter at and my life has be­come easy. I’m in the flow! Why? Be­cause ev­ery­one on my team is a su­per­star.” And the fear­less leader has big plans for their fu­ture. You could soon be din­ing at a Fe­lix Trat­to­ria out­post in Toronto or New York City — if you can score a ta­ble.

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