With a career that has spanned the media and marketing worlds, Angela Lawrence, chief culture officer at Gusto 54 Restaurant Group, is tasked with managing the growth of the Gusto brand’s footprint as well as that of its employees. She was instrumental in shaping the direction of Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen, its Caribbean-centric spot that celebrates its second anniversary this year, and is set to introduce a line of at-home hot sauces soon. In anticipation of the group’s newest Toronto boîte, Gusto 501, which is set to open this winter, Lawrence sat down to discuss what it means to preserve cultural integrity in the development of a restaurant.
There’s a lot of discussion right now in many industries – fashion, food – about maintaining authenticity. Can you talk about how your role plays into that?
To put it simply, I’m responsible for the employee experience. Really, it’s around internal communications and anything that touches the team members to make sure they’re having an amazing experience at work.
And that obviously manifests in the restaurant experience, too. If people are feeling involved and able to tell the brand story and feel part of it, that’s important.
Absolutely. We say, happy people make people happy. We focus on our people knowing that it will trickle down to our guests. For example, the stories about our brands – our online training system helps to reinforce them so everyone is telling the same story. I remember before we had it, people would ask about the Goodyear sign at Gusto 54; everyone had a different story about it. “Oh yeah, it was here when the building was first here." We had to get everyone on the same page. When people come to work at Chubby’s, regardless of whether they have a connection to the Caribbean – because even if they do, they don’t necessarily know a lot – we have training that teaches them about the culture. Not just about the food and drink, but the geography of the island [of Jamaica], the places and what they’re known for, what particular dishes come from what areas, the music and a lot of aspects to the country from the Arawaks to slavery to all the immigration that has brought in different cuisines as well. We set people up to be able to answer any question a guest has and have a full understanding of the dishes.
That’s useful, because I feel like there’s so much happening in terms of trying to integrate the history of this city or another city into spaces that are new. I imagine addressing it must be part of your job as well.
With Chubby’s, we wanted to create an experience that was transporting. We ended up purchasing a building that was a residential space that we had to turn into a commercial one. We always wanted to keep the bones and wanted the experience be that when someone was walking in, they were walking into someone’s home. A Jamaican home. Janet [Zuccarini, CEO] and I were sharing Pinterest boards – she’s really good with that stuff, and she’s been to Jamaica a lot. The main thing was that we knew we didn’t want it to be a stereotypical Jamaican restaurant, in the sense of relying on Rasta culture and colours. But it was always going to be a tribute to Jamaican homestyle cooks. The name comes from that; it’s Chubby’s because when you have a good meal, you feel a little chubby after but in a good way. It’s funny because I remember someone came by and said, “It’s a Jamaican restaurant so why doesn’t it say ‘Jamaican restaurant’ outside?” I’m like, don’t worry, over time people will get to know it is without us having to say that.
It’s interesting that people feel like you’d have to denote that. It makes me wonder about the idea of how you authentically represent something without relying on stereotypes, when sometimes that’s what many people have to go on.
It’s not so much that we didn’t want that, it’s just that there was another story to tell. There’s a lot more to Jamaican culture and cuisine than people have been exposed to.
Do you think being in such a multicultural city makes it easier or harder to embark on a project like Chubby’s, because you’re going to hear a lot of points of view about what you’re doing.
I feel like anything you do when you come from a space of love and respect, everything just falls together. There’s a difference when you do things that aren’t authentic, or your intention isn’t pure … I feel that people feel that. My barometer has always been that people like myself, who are Jamaican or have a West Indian background, come there and try the food; our menu is grounded in traditional Jamaican recipes, and then we have things that are a twist on them. We need to make sure it’s relevant to how people eat today, to make sure there are vegan and vegetarian options. But if you want your oxtail and rice and peas and plantain and ginger beer, it was always my goal that the ginger beer tastes like the type you make at home.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.