Women in Business: Janet Zuccarini, The Trailblazing CEO and Founder of Gusto 54 Restaurant Group

POSTED ON March 8, 2023 BY Justine Smith

Toronto’s culinary scene has experienced a renaissance over the past few years, with new restaurants and food concepts popping up across the city. One group of restaurants that has been making waves in the industry for quite some time is Gusto 54. Led by CEO and Founder Janet Zuccarini, Gusto 54 Restaurant Group is a hospitality company that operates some of Toronto’s most iconic dining establishments such as Gusto 101, Pai Northern Thai Kitchen, and Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen

To gain a deeper understanding of Gusto 54, we had the pleasure of speaking with Janet, who shared her insights on running a successful restaurant group and what’s next for Gusto 54.

Over the decades, Gusto 54 has evolved from a family-owned sidewalk café to an array of diverse experiences across markets. What has been the motivation and process driving these innovations and what does the future hold for Gusto 54? 

Anywhere you look, people will say ‘Oh, it wasn’t like this back in the day,’ but I don’t share that perspective. I’m always looking forward and embracing the changes that the future brings.

The restaurant industry was arguably the industry that was hit the hardest by the pandemic. As an industry we were brought to our knees. The greatest determiner of success is grit, and this took everything I had to fight to stay alive as a business. These past two years were nothing but challenges, but with great determination and incredible team, Gusto 54 are getting to the other side of this nightmare together. 

Something to remember is that when you’re in the restaurant industry, you’re in the business of people. We hire for attitude and train for skill, hiring awesome people to bring our brand to life. Inside our restaurants it boils down to three main things: transporting design, delicious, relevant food, and soulful hospitality. Almost a quarter of a decade in this business under my belt and we’re still as busy as when we first opened the doors at Trattoria Nervosa.

Gusto 54 is a growing company and always taking on new projects which is very exciting for me. I have also connected to my passion and feel a real sense of purpose in my life. I am so excited to walk through the doors of our newest LA concept – Stella – later this year in partnership with Chef Rob Gentile. And coming very soon is the opening of the restaurant side of our newest Toronto concept, Cafe ZUZU, featuring a stunning menu that pays homage to modern takes on classic Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. 

It is evident Gusto is committed to giving back through programs focused on sustainability, education and community. Tell us about your various initiatives and the inspiration behind them. 

Gusto 54 approaches sustainability, education, and community with the same vigor and enthusiasm that our namesake implies. We only have one Earth, and we feel everyone is responsible to have a commitment to sustainability for the longevity of our planet. Through our Gusto Gives Back program, we have found unique ways to help feed and teach people how to eat in a healthy and sustainable way, especially through our Mini Chef program – a Gusto 54 program designed to teach students how to eat healthy in a fun, interactive, and sustainable way. We also support local food-based organizations like FoodShare in Toronto, raising funds annually in support of closing the gap on food insecurity and supporting community-led food initiatives. 

One of the big industry changes we’ve seen is a shift towards knowing the source of your food, which farms your produce is coming from, and who your food purveyors are. As a LEAF and Ocean Wise certified company, Gusto 54 further moves towards embracing hyper-local keeping into consideration the concerns for the environment and climate change. Plant-forward menus are also becoming more and more popular. Animal proteins are moving more towards sustainable fish, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and treating animals humanely – it’s great to be part of this shift towards a more sustainable, caring future for our planet. 

Internally we feel great company pride in knowing we hire and promote within our Gusto 54 Family and have a commitment to equity, inclusion and equality. If you look at the leadership team at Gusto 54, it’s very diverse and inclusive which is something I am proud of. We hire the best person for the role and when you look closely you will see many female leaders, LGBTQIA+ and people of colour in a variety of leadership roles throughout Gusto 54. 

Lastly, we also keep up to date on the latest technologies in the ever-evolving industry and look for ways to develop a strategy to integrate new ways to streamline our processes, like embracing paperless menus, integrating better, smarter POS systems, and even internally how we manage our day-to-day operations.

As a woman in leadership, tell us about your career journey and contributions made to Gusto 54? Feel free to share anything further such as advice, challenges and/or lessons.

I always say the restaurant industry is not one for the faint of heart, especially for women. But I also realize I need challenges in my life to keep interested. Although growing up I never aspired to be a restaurateur, the foundation was always there whether I consciously realized it or not. My father immigrated from Italy in the 1950s, bringing with him the first espresso machine to Canada. He started his own importing business and from an early age I’d help him sell espresso machines to restaurants and cafes across the city. That entrepreneurial attitude is something that was ingrained in me from day one, thanks to my father. 

I spent a handful of years studying business in Rome, and further falling in love with food and travel. I happened to come back to Toronto for a friend’s wedding when I stumbled into what was then a soon-to-be Trattoria Nervosa. I remembered I had sold an espresso machine to the previous owners and was curious about what was happening with the place. I spoke with the new owners, who asked me to be a partner on the spot. Two weeks later, I became an owner, even though I had never worked in a restaurant. Nearly 25 years and almost 10 restaurants later, I’m still as passionate about the business as ever.

One of the best decisions I made early on was creating a strong foundation with Trattoria Nervosa and Gusto 101–purchasing the real estate, recouping the costs, and then reinvesting any profits into expansion of Gusto 54. I continue to purchase real estate wherever I can, adding to the security and longevity of our restaurants by avoiding variable rent. 

My advice would be: regardless of industry, make sure it’s your passion. If your passion happens to be in the restaurant industry, make sure you know every angle of the business. When I first opened Trattoria Nervosa I worked around the clock in every role – bartender, bookkeeper, busser, host, etc. While working 20-hour days for the first years of being open was at times soul-crushing, it was one of the best foundations I could have had. I’ve now been lucky enough to step back and take on more of a visionary role as we grow our business, but having that deep understanding of each aspect of the business has been worth its weight in gold.

As Gusto 54 continues to grow and expand into new markets, their dedication to excellence and social responsibility will undoubtedly continue to set them apart in the industry.

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