10 Questions with Janet Zuccarini, the Woman Behind Felix
The essence of Italian food, the harsh realities of the restaurant business, and the beauty of handmade pasta. We talked with Janet Zuccarini as her new creature, Felix Trattoria, is about to open on Abbot Kinney, Venice
Ever heard of the expression “the new kid in town”? Well, surprise surprise, there she is. Janet Zuccarini. Not only it’s a girl, but a fierceful one, a beautiful, knowledgable, busy Italo-Canadian restaurateur and businesswoman extraordinaire. Now in Southern California.
Being a little short of 6’7″ (ok, I did lie at the DMV, don’t tell me you didn’t) I have always known that it is not the SIZE that matters (first thing I told my wife when I asked her to marry me), but the HEART, SOUL and LOVE that you put into your work, commitment and life. Nothing can be more truthful than watching Janet at work, as I enter her new Italian-Californian restaurant Felix (in the space formerly occupied by Joe’s), on the north end of Abbot Kinney, while she is …well….talking to her pasta fatta a mano chef Evan Funke, her designer, her maitre d’, her painter, her bartender, even her “Mister Geppetto” (for wooden fixtures) … She is literally everywhere, stiletto shoes and skinny jeans, all 5 6″ of her, standing tall in the midst of the final preparation for the upcoming opening on April 7.
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Don’t let anything fool you, Janet Zuccarini is a force to be reckoned with. This savvy entrepreneur has amassed a culinary empire known as Gusto 54. The restaurant group includes a portfolio of eateries: Gusto 101, Trattoria Nervosa, and Pai restaurants, as well as Gusto 54 catering. And now she is in California, right here, sitting in front of me. She stood me up on our first date (after all, she is a woman) a week ago, but here we are.
1) Let’s start with the easy ones: who are you? Where are you from? Mom and papa, your heritage, and why food?
My name is Janet Linda Zuccarini. I was born in Toronto, Canada, my father was Giacomo Zuccarini, italiano from Abruzzo and my mother was from Germany. Both of them straight off the boat, both immigrants, who through life, met in Toronto. Why food? My father brought the first espresso machine into Canada just after it was invented in 1954. He opened up a three-level cafè, pizzeria, fine dining restaurant in Toronto. He was an entrepenuer, no doubt about it.
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After that experience, he decided to stick with the coffe business and moved from the restaurant into a company that still exists today, Zuccarini Importing, run by my sister Jackie—a family company owned for more than 60 years. She imports and distributes everything coffee-related: machines, restaurant equipment etc… all from Italy. I on the other end I chose the restaurant business, while the my other sister Jennifer, has her own fashion business in New York, she has a design line called Fleur Du Mal.
— foodiamo (@foodiamo) April 5, 2017
2) Beside noticing that all the girls in your family have names starting with “j”, why did you choose to work in the food industry? Take me back to the time when you were a kid, your recollections of family life & food…
[Laughs] My father was at a chef level of cooking, he taught my mother how to cook, so we ate really well at home. Everything was made by scratch, by hand, always fresh produce, we never had junk food at home, very strict & pure Italian food. I would go to my friends’ house and they would have a can, and a can opener, for stuff like Chef Boyardee and I would ask what is this? I didn’t know anything about canned food!
At the age of 18, I moved to Italy [we both wink and laugh] and I went to college there, the American University of Rome. I didn’t speak italian at home so I got that part covered in Italy. I did my MBA at Boston University in Rome, even though it was an excuse for me to keep living there. Everybody back home was really impressed, but for me it was easy, I would have done anything to extend my stay in that beautiful place, and live the free life of a student. I was riding my Vespa [please, after you see her photo, picture her flowing hair and catcalls coming from every street corner in Rome] and my school had an amazing view, just in front of the Fontana di Trevi. I would go to the market everyday, I didn’t have a lot of money so I would cook for myself a lot, call home and ask my father and my mother for their recipes. Friends always came over for dinner and they loved my cooking. Everybody would say, “Janet, you need to open a restaurant!” I never felt I was a great cook. I was just buying great ingredients, do very little to them, and they turned out amazing.
This is what Italian food is about, simple, fresh, healthy. Some of the most difficult recipes have very few ingredients, that’s why are hard to make. I fully developed the Italian family-food-friend virus over there, to me is such a great joy in life and it means a lot, bringing family together, reminiscent of my family, always gathering to eat together, like I did in Italy, spending time with my friends. Italians are always welcome you off the streets, and love to eat together. I studied business so it was a natural merging of interest. I’m a business person, but also a passionate person.
3) After coming back from Italy, you opened your first restaurant in Toronto, Nervosa. Why Nervosa? (which mean nervous in Italian)
Don’t know why, I didn’t choose the name, my partners at the time did, at the beginning I didn’t like the name because of its meaning… but then I tought it was a good name, because, being my first restaurant I was kind of NERVOSA myself. Four years later, I bought out my partners’ shares. It has been successful for 20 years. It is in a prime location, in a high-end neighborhood, close to the Four Seasons and all the fashion boutiques, it is like Toronto’s Fifth Avenue.
Then I opened Gusto in 2012, and I loved the name. It is italian for tasty food, it’s a neighborhood restaurant, it is a volume restaurant because we serve 1000 people a day. Pizzeria, trattoria, good price, young demographic, 250 seats, loud, energy, for young people that have a vibe. This is a good formula for a long running restaurant. I don’t want to be a trendy restaurant, nor a high-end one—those restaurants have a short lifespan. I want to go into a neighborhood and become a fixture there, I want to do good food but also be profitable.
4) What’s the key to be profitable?
The numbers… Numbers are key to success. I know a lot of people in the restaurant business who don’t know how to make money, and don’t know how to be there for long. The average lifespan for a restaurant is 7 years, over 50% of the restaurant fail in the first year, it is a very hard business. I manage my place every day with numbers. You cannot go anywhere if you don’t keep your numbers under control.
5) Why did you come to LA?
I have been expanding my business in the last 2 years. I opened a Thai restaurant called Pai, with this couple, and one of them is a very talented chef, so after discussing business, I backed them financially and also with training and the back of the house, my specialty. Pai is very successful and we serve around 1000 people a day as well. Then I thought of bringing food to people, so I opened a catering company.
And then I wanted to open a restaurant outside Toronto, while making a lifestyle move and getting out of the winter, so I thought about Miami and Los Angeles. I first went to Miami but I wasn’t in love with it. There is a lot of potential but it’s not for me. As soon as I landed here in LA, I fell in love with the city. The city is evolving, and the restaurant scene has evolved so much in the last five years. I am also a very active person, I like biking, hiking, and playing tennis, so it was a no brainer… It is so magic to be close to the ocean, let me tell you.
6) What about Felix? How did you come up with the concept?
I landed in LA, I explored the city, and I decided I wanted to live in Venice, so I bought a house. It’s all up-and-coming, the volume is great. I’m good at real estate, and the numbers spoke to me. I wanted to buy the building here because my dream was to be on Abbot Kinney, but once I realized I couldn’t afford to buy it and most of the rents are around $45k a month, I started to look elsewhere. I looked everywhere, DTLA, Marina del Rey…
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I found out that Joe’s had a favorable lease, I found a chef, and we worked together for nine months. Then all of a sudden he decided to get another job. So there I was, with money, ideas, and only one chef in mind: Evan Funke. Also, the landlord was very particular, he was interviewing other businesses, other people, he was interested in me only because I had a chef with a good name. Obviously, I did have other restaurants and businesses, but not here. After all I’m a Canadian woman, he didn’t care how successful I was over there. So the genesis of it… was that I contacted Evan while I was in Marocco, we talked and he loved the idea to open a place on Abbot Kinney… I flew him to Toronto to have him cook for me, I tasted his food and I loved it. And here we are, ta-da!
7) What did he cook?
He made cacio e pepe, focaccia, something really basic, but if you can make one good pasta, you can make any pasta. That is why at Felix we will have a glass-enclosed pasta lab, where people can see and appreciate Evan’s pasta fatta a mano, i.e. handmade. Just wait to see what we can do. I want Felix to become a destination restaurant, at the quiet end of Abbot Kinney. People that follow Evan and people who like good food will come over. Well, we have a great chef and a great menu… and yes, a great address as well.
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8) What about Giacomo, your dad?
Thank you for asking… He always said, “God punished me. He gave me three daughters, no son!” And to tell you the truth, I was brought up like a son, I fixed espresso machines, I did work that boys would do. But when I didn’t like the sales aspect of the business, he was truly disappointed. When I went into the restaurant business, he was very upset with me and we didn’t talk for a good year. He came to my restaurant ONLY once and after he was done. I was proud of myself, but he said, “Your food is lousy. You are going to fail!” I know he didn’t mean it, but he was so angry at me for leaving his business. Then we made peace, and he told me, “Janet I didn’t want you to work so hard, I didn’t want to see you work 16 hours a day. I tought I setup a nice business for you to have a nice life. This business is hard, you work a lot of hours, round the clock, is not a 9-to-5 job.”
And he was right. I know every position in my restaurants. Do you want to talk to me about being a busboy? I was a busboy, I was a bookkeeper, a bartender… But because when you are passionate about something, it doesn’t feel like work. He passed away in 2000, but I’m sure is looking down on us, and he is proud of his girls, all of us. I appreciate the way he raised me, because I learned what a good work ethic is. Perseverance, grit, never giving up. That is me.
[Yes she is. I can testify to that]
9) Let’s finish with some lessons you’ve learned in the restaurant industry. Tell me the three things that you wanna know when you open a restaurant.
1 – Great location. I think about the restaurant that I want to open and I find the neighborhood suited for that location. 2 – Finding the right chef. 3 – Understanding the right training for your staff, because you want people to come back. Great service is going to save bad food, but bad service will never save good food.
10) And the three worst things that you shouldn’t do when opening a restaurant…
1 – Don’t underestimate your margins, which are very slim. 2 – The most important numbers are your food cost and your labor cost. 3 – If you let these numbers pop up you will be closing your doors soon. To make it in this business you need to know your numbers. Always.
Ciao bella… see you at Felix! We’ll be back to see what Evan is up to, and to eat some pasta of course.
Cover photo by Jake Rosenberg. Interior and food photos by Alan Gastelum, courtesy of Gusto 54. All rights reserved.