Toronto Restaurateur Looks to LA & Miami To Grow With Gusto

Sunday Dec 13th, 2015



Janet Zuccarini opened Trattoria Nervosa in Toronto's Yorkville district 20 years ago. It took another 15 years for her to invest in more restaurant concepts in the Toronto area, including Gusto 101, Pai Northern Thai Kitchen, Chubby's Jamaican Kitchen and Gusto 501, opening soon. And she launched a catering division this year. Now she's poised to transform her local success into a global restaurant group under the Gusto 54 brand, taking it first to Los Angeles and Miami. 

Q: How did you start in the restaurant business?

A: My father Giacomo founded Zuccarini Importing in 1954 - one of the first companies to import espresso machines into Canada. At the age of 12, I started going into the store and over time, selling machines to restaurants and hoteliers. I always knew I would be an entrepreneur, so I moved to Italy to go to university and get my MBA. My other passions were travel, cooking and food. The opportunity to open Trattoria Nervosa fell into my lap when I flew home for a friend's wedding. I was getting my hair done when someone told me the corner property at Bellair and Yorkville was available for lease, so by 1996 I had opened my first restaurant. 

Q: How did you fund it?

A: I had already bought a condo with family money in my 20s. When the Nervosa site became available for lease, I sold the condo and moved back to the family home. I started with two partners. One we bought out immediately, the other I bought out four years later. I didn't take a salary and worked as a waitress, bookkeeper, bartender, you name it. We were successful from Day 1, and never missed a payment.

Q: What did you learn from owning a restaurant?

A: When you start out in this business you have to run lean. At the beginning, I lived off my tips and worked 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. But I knew that's what it took to start a business on your own so I never thought twice about it. All I did was save everything I could and lived below my means until I was able to buy the building 10 years later. Buying out my partners and owning the building were very important strategic moves. I also learned to work smart, which meant picking great leaders who could help me grow my business.

Q: When did you decide to expand?

A: For a while I didn't want to because I thought I might want a family. Owning Nervosa and making good money was enough for me. When I realized a family wasn't going to happen I had all this energy to open another restaurant. So I bought another property and Gusto 101 was opened 15 years after Nervosa. Gusto 101 was much more successful than I thought it would be. We had two-hour lineups with no PR behind us - not even an announcement. I started to see how this resonated with people and realized I was ready to create a global restaurant group under the Gusto 54 banner.

Q: What makes your business model unique?

A: A lot of restaurateurs don't own their real estate. Because I have a business background and am careful with money, I was able to take on more properties without bankers or partners. It was all self-financed. Even today I am able to finance my next restaurant Gusto 501, which broke ground this summer, out of my own pocket.

Q: What's next in your plans?

A: This year we went through the exercise of branding Gusto 54. This umbrella company is headed by Juanita Dickson who has been tasked with growing us into a global company. Now, our goal is to open one to two restaurants a year. We are putting together a California team, as well as scouting out Miami locations. However, rather than owning properties, I am working with real estate partners who can buy the properties and lease them to me at a reasonable rate for 30 years. I own enough commercial real estate. I'm more interested in proliferating with restaurants.

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment?

A: I have always seen myself as a visionary who is also a very strong business person. I'm especially proud of the fact I have built this restaurant group without outside help. A lot of people in this industry work with a partner and various backers, including silent investors. I did all of this with my own money and ideas, and by surrounding myself with really great, talented friends.

The motto I live by is something I heard Madonna say in an interview in the 1980s: "I'm not the most talented singer or dancer. What I have is drive." I always think about that. Drive has really been the most important factor in my success.

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