Jeff Gigante isn’t new to the restaurant business. He co-founded Ciccio Restaurant Group in Tampa, Florida, and helped scale it to 24 units. As the brand moved more toward fast casual, however, he found himself missing life in full service.
“I was not working in the restaurant any longer, was in an office, looking at computer screens, and not really being with people, which really is my energy, that’s what gives me my purpose,” Gigante says.
So, in 2018, he sold his interest and created Gigante Hospitality. At 50 years old, Gigante found himself starting over.
He didn’t go it alone, however. Joe Guggino, who Gigante worked with before, joined in. Though Guggino was originally supposed to be a passive investor, Gigante recruited him to curate the wine list for his first concept in the new company, Forbici Modern Italian.
Soon, Guggino was involved in training the servers on the wine list he curated, and has not stopped showing up since.
“He just slowly started to really become integral and learn everything and just absolutely loved it,” Gigante says.
Andrew Wright, a long-time mentor of Gigante’s, also came along for the ride. Wright is the founder, CEO, and managing partner of Franklin Street, a commercial real estate firm in Tampa. Gigante had gone to him for advice on his second and third moves in his new brand, and Wright wanted to join him in those next steps. With Wright and Guggino on board, Next Level Brands was formed.
“We’re all bringing our talents that are super diverse, but they all blend—there’s a great synergy between us three,” Gigante says.
Chris T. Sullivan, former chairman and CEO of Outback Steakhouse, has formed a partnership with NLB as well, serving as a mentor for the growing company. He and Gigante have known one another for many years through their involvement in the industry in Tampa.
“I am a passive investor that admires the work of Jeff Gigante, and strongly believe in the Next Level Brands team,” Sullivan says. “I believe they will create and operate fantastic restaurant concepts that will exceed the expectations. I look forward to continuing to invest in the future of Next Level Brands and becoming a regular patron in the restaurants. This is a very exciting opportunity and I am proud to be part of it.”
“It’s just a dream for me to have a guy that, in my opinion, is the pinnacle of a multi-unit operator visionary and just overall industry expert in hospitality,” Gigante says.
Next Level Brands has its eyes on expansion in the Tampa Bay area, with its raised funds for the next five restaurants it plans to open. The first will be Boulon Brasserie in fall 2022, and the second will be Union New American, a name paying homage to the partnership that formed NLB, set to open this coming winter.
“I’m just so excited,” Gigante says. “It’s rare in somebody’s career that, easily halfway through your life, you’re able to kind of reset and restart. I’ve never been more excited about hospitality in my entire 30 years in the career as I am right now.”