Women in Business: Juanita Dickson, Driving Innovation at Gusto 54 Restaurant Group

POSTED ON March 10, 2023 BY Justine Smith

Juanita Dickson is a long-standing member in the hospitality industry and contributor to the success of the Gusto 54 Restaurant Group. As President and CFO, she has been instrumental in establishing Gusto 54’s presence in the culinary world, with restaurants in Toronto and Los Angeles. With a passion for food and a commitment to excellence, Juanita has earned a reputation as a visionary leader in the restaurant industry.

We had a conversation with Juanita Dickson, who shared the magical and winding journey of her career and valuable perspectives she learned along the way.

In what way have you contributed to the growth and progression of Gusto 54? 

When Janet brought me on board 7 years ago, she had 3 concepts in Toronto, with ambitions of becoming a global restaurant group. These 3 concepts were highly successful within the neighbourhoods that they were operating in, Trattoria Nervosa was in business for twenty years, and Gusto 101 had just been launched. At the time, Janet was just breaking ground, opening the doors of Gusto 101, and she had just entered into a partnership with Pai. As a Marketer, I was excited about stepping into these brands with a cult-like following and building a strategy, asking questions such as, Where is the potential and how do we bring this to life with a strategy that makes sense for the company?

We became incredibly excited about this vision of not scaling Italian, Thai, or one particular concept, but really about creating the most celebrated collection of culinary experiences in the world, regardless of genre. All this linked behind the idea of creating transporting experiences for people. We followed this path of supporting chefs and celebrating different cultures, opening up Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen, then later a Middle Eastern restaurant, and recently expanding into the U.S. with Felix in collaboration with celebrity chef Evan Funke. It began to steamroll the vision ahead that was coming to life of creating the most celebrated collection of transporting experiences.

In terms of the future, most of the growth happened over the last 3 to 4 years during the pandemic, because all of the seeds had been planted. The future will be about building the roots of the 12 concepts, in both Toronto and L.A., focusing on those communities and establishing a strong foundation. Beyond that, being smart about defining and identifying the scalable concepts to determine which of those can then be scaled in a more rapid, expanded way.

How does your restaurant promote and celebrate diversity and cultural inclusivity?

On this exciting journey about, transitioning from owning a couple of restaurants in Toronto to becoming a global restaurant group, what has been very clear is that we’re not scaling any one particular concept. What we’re scaling is this idea of culture and soulful hospitality. Regardless of the concept whether it’s Chubby’s Jamaican kitchen, or Gusto, 101 or Felix, what’s central is this idea of soulful hospitality and a committed brand promise to creating transporting experiences. This is intrinsically linked to the people that have become an extension of our brand. Over the course of the the pandemic in particular, where staffing became a global challenge, our success and ability to deliver upon that brand promise is linked to the investment that we’re making in our people to create a culture that we’ve consciously decided to significantly invest in.

It comes from a from belief that happy people make people happy. Our number one priority is around investing in attracting and retaining the best talent in the industry. We’ve been able to step outside of what has historically existed in small restaurant groups, by investing in the training required for our frontline workers that are essentially representing our brand. We use the foundation of our family values and invest in our workers, prioritizing these values over skill sets when hiring. We’re looking to invest in people who are positive, choosing to have fun, possess an entrepreneurial spirit and are solution driven and customer focused. We believe in diversity, sustainability, and giving back to the community.

We support our team with an amazing family culture and an employee experience that will encourage them to stay and grow with the company. In an industry that has historically been a stopping ground to bigger and better things, we’ve seen great success by ensuring many of our leaders in our newer concepts were at one time servers or in entry-level positions. This provides comfort that our strategy in supporting workplace culture is is aligned with our growth aspirations.

As a woman and leadership, can you share your professional trajectory and the impact you have had on Gusto 54? Additionally, please feel free to share any insights, challenges, or advice that you have gained throughout your career.

Though I did start my career by completing an undergrad in hospitality management, I spent the next decade or two I working outside of Hospitality, with a marketing firm, consulting and developing loyalty solutions and customer experience, design, and building brands and growing companies. When Janet approached me to help her with this aspiration of a growing Gusto 54, initially I thought it was a complete career change. But I made the leap, and left my cushy corporate job to take the risk in growing something that felt very magical to me. In making that leap, I quickly learned that what I had done over the last 10 or 20 years was applicable and it wasn’t a complete career change. It was basically applying those transferable skills to the question of: how do we build a brand? And figure out how to build a strategy.

This experience essentially brought all of these disparate parts and transferable skills together, creating a magical journey of of rapid transformation and growth for a company that became one of the first restaurant groups and women lead organizations to land in the Deloitte’s ‘Best Managed Company’ designation. We’re now celebrating our fifth year with that designation, which is a minority when it comes to women lead businesses, yet an even bigger minority when it comes to hospitality.

So my advice to people would be to put weight on any transferable skills and be open to the magic of possibility. My life wasn’t a very clear path. It was a long and winding road, being open to possibility and opportunities, which has just kept things very exciting. It’s been different than what I had initially thought it would be years ago, but I’m always intrigued about where life is gonna take me when I keep an open mind.

Juanita’s contributions have been instrumental in developing Gusto 54’s presence across North America. As the president of a Deloitte ‘Best Managed Company’ and a women-led business in hospitality, her trajectory is a testament to the power of hard work and reflects the magic of possibility.

Back to main article: Leading Women Shaping the Future of the Culinary Industry