Chatting with restauranteur Jeff Gigante

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Jeff Gigante is one of Tampa’s busiest restauranteurs, with eight restaurants under the Ciccio Restaurant Group, which he helped establish in the Bay area, employing more than 1,300 workers. Gigante also has a long list of philanthropic endeavors, including work with Train Up First and the Children’s Cancer Center.

His newest endeavor is an Italian restaurant called Forbici, set to open soon in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village. Tampa Bay Business & Wealth CEO and Publisher Bridgette Bello interviewed Gigante in front of an invitation-only audience at the AdventHealth Training Center, formerly known as One Buc Place.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The question on everyone’s mind: Why are you leaving Ciccio Restaurant Group?

I’m not leaving. It’s a company I co-founded 23 years ago, and it’s really my heart in this town. I absolutely love it, but, like everything else, change has occurred. I found myself spending a majority of my days in an office looking at a computer  screen, crunching numbers and doing forecasts, and it didn’t make me happy.

It all happened at the perfect time. We made the decision to go into Hyde Park with Better Byrd [a chicken restaurant that started in St. Petersburg]. That restaurant went on to become something more along the lines of Taco Dirty and Fresh Kitchen, grab-and-go concepts, with some seating but not a lot, and certainly not a big alcohol-and-entertainment draw. We had this 6,000-square-foot store that Better Byrd was going to go into, but it didn’t.

My partners and I were kind of perplexed on what we were going to do there. And at the same time, I was having this itch to say, “You know what? I kind of want to do my concept that I’ve been working on: pizza.”

Forbici was imagined in that space and we were able to make the change. I began winding down my duties at CRG.

I’m not leaving CRG. I’m still on the board. I’m still the second-largest shareholder, and I love it.

You also run a large cleaning company, Triad Cleaning Solutions. How does that fit your business profile?

I’ve always wanted to do other businesses, but I wanted them to be parallel to what I was already doing. We could never find a good cleaning company in the restaurant industry. And now I know why. We started out doing restaurants and, a year later, I decided to get out of the restaurant business because they are very picky, very dirty and like to pay late.

Now we do mostly hospitals and surgical practices, auto dealerships and general offices. We’ve been building that business since 2009, and it has really been about building relationships. I reached out to community leaders and business owners to start. Now we do work with [health care system] BayCare and Tampa International Airport, to name a few. We have 150 employees in that business.

You also have a company that creates 3D foam sculptures, called Grand Theming. What’s that about?

You’ve experienced [the section of Raymond James Stadium called] Bucs Beach, all those big Adirondack chairs and the “Go Bucs” signs? We did that. Jason Hulfish, my artist partner in Grand Theming, has been a friend of mine since ninth grade. Jason used to make these amazing shirts in high school that people were paying $15 back in 1986 for. That’s probably like $100 in current-day dollars. He’s just one of the most talented guys.

He’s the resident artist on [television shows] “Bar Rescue” and “Treehouse Masters.” He’s had this illustrious career making these amazing bedrooms and different themed areas. But his problem was that if he wasn’t working with his hands, he wasn’t getting paid. I asked him “What are some of the drawbacks with that?” And it was equipment. I was able to come in and invest, and we bought all of our own CNC [cutting] machines and the big, five-axis router. We have a machine that’s the size of this entire stage that can cut a perfect laser copy of you out of a piece of foam.

Now we’re doing work for [magician] Criss Angel’s theater and Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas and for Advent Health. We’re doing the pediatric emergency rooms for kids. When your child comes in with a traumatic injury, they come into this room and it comes alive with cartoon characters and it’s themed out like a beach and there’s a monkey hanging on the wall. We’re also doing a lot of work with Hillsborough County schools and a lot of churches. That’s a business that we started in September of last year and we’ll do close to a million dollars this first year in.

You are a poker fan. Have you sponsored anyone?

That, again, came out of a relationship. I met this young man named John Racener [from Port Richey]. When we met, he had just lost his father and his mother was struggling with cancer that ended up taking her life, and he was super-talented but submarining in himself. We spent a lot of time together and it just so happened that some of the stuff we were practicing and the principles that I was trying to help him with ended up helping him have this huge run at the World Series of Poker that year.

I believe he is the 29th most-winning poker player of all time. He has over $17 million in earnings, and he’s doing phenomenal. He just had his first child; hopefully, it’ll be my godson, I’m also instilling in him that he’s got to give back.

It really wasn’t about the money for you. It was about mentoring this guy, right?

That first year ended up being a tremendous upswing with money, but then we had two to four really struggling years, where he was learning that all of the fame and fortune can go away very quickly. The money I made that first year was spread out over the first five years because I was having a lot of lessons with him. He saw in a short period of time that you can really blow through a lot of money if you find yourself not with the right group.

With all the different restaurant concepts you have, do you also cook at home?

I don’t cook much, but sometimes I do. I’m doing it more now. I think once Forbici opens, I’ll be doing it much less because I’ll be there a lot. My wife is an amazing cook and my mother-in-law is a great cook. But we also order in a lot.

How’s Forbici coming along?

I was in there [recently] with the electrician and mechanical crews, because we’re putting in new air conditioning. This was the old Piquant space, and you will not be able to recognize it. We’ve completely changed every surface, and it’s going to be amazing, but it’s going to be one of these restaurants that it feels like it’s been open for 50 years on day one.

You’ve talked about when you were in New York and you hit the “big time.” Can you tell the story again?

I booked a small contract on a soap opera, and that was it. I was certain that this was my big break. I thought, “Thank God, I don’t have to wait tables anymore.” I went in and made kind of a big to-do—luckily not to the owner, my partner now, but to my manager, who always thought I was full of it. I told him, “If you need two weeks, I’ll work it, but I’m done. I’ve made it!” The show that I was on was the only 30-minute soap opera, called Loving, with Randy Mantooth. It was canceled the next week, the entire show. That was my little brush with fame. Then I had to go back, tail between my legs, and ask for my job back. ♦


TBBW’s “CEO Connect” series is an invitation-only, monthly event that brings together the Tampa Bay area’s top business leaders to meet and mingle. The sponsors of October’s event were CDW and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The evening begins with a cocktail reception for about 100 guests, followed by the highlight of the event, an interview conducted by TBBW CEO and Publisher Bridgette Bello, and a well-known, local C-level executive. The conversation provides insight into the executives’ personal lives, careers and views on issues affecting the business community.

Partnering with TBBW on this event provides an opportunity to network with the area’s business elite, generate new business opportunities, and increase brand awareness.

For information about event sponsorship opportunities, email Jason Baker at [email protected]

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