Chef Giovanni

Chef Giovanni has owned Giannfranco’s Trattoria for 13 years.

Entering Giannfranco’s Trattoria, a local mom-and-pop Italian restaurant on Linden Avenue, patrons are met with smiles, white linens and a touch of glamor to make Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack proud. The name itself is a familial blend: Chef Giovanni Contreras combined his first name with his father, Frank and mother, Ana’s names to create Giannfranco’s Trattoria. The name embraces a cozy atmosphere and made-to-order quality fare. But cooking wasn’t always the family business. With his father once in aerospace and his mother in retail, Giovanni was the one with dreams of owning a business. “I was supposed to go to medical school, but I kept dreaming of cooking and having a restaurant,” he said. “While in Chemistry class one day, I thought, I’m in the wrong field.” At 25, he told his family he wanted to study the culinary arts and his mother encouraged him to work in a restaurant. After just one night on the job, Giovanni was hooked. He later traveled to San Francisco for culinary school before returning to Santa Barbara City College to finish his degree.

When I interviewed Giovanni, he reflected on a time when he held a vegetable peeler in one hand with mounds of potatoes and carrots in front of him. Those small moments in the beginning are what Giovanni recommends all budding chefs embrace. “You have to be true to yourself and know what you’re getting into. Long hours, hard work, low pay,” Giovanni explained. “You’re not going to make thousands of dollars when you first get out of cooking school. You have to put in your time.”

Giovanni paid his dues working at a hotel for the in-house restaurant which also included tending the pool, bar and room service. Eventually he was promoted to grilling steaks and mixing salads and gradually he moved up from there. Giovanni embraced the hotel experience because that’s where he learned the “essence” of the food industry. “Not just for cooking,” he said, “but prepping food, the business side and talking to customers.” He advised kids who are interested in cooking school to work in a similar environment. “(The experience) changed my whole perspective.”

Now in its 13th year of business, Giannfranco’s overcame one of its biggest challenges by holding true to their most important trait: consistency with quality food. While the Great Recession affected many restaurants, some closing or cutting corners with ingredients, Giannfranco’s made guests feel confident in spending hard-earned money by keeping quality the status quo. With that, a following grew from the Central Coast to San Diego, mainly through word-of-mouth. Great reviews followed on Trip Advisor, an online travel company, which has granted awards to the restaurant year after year. “What’s meant more than (awards) to us is acceptance in Carpinteria,” said Giovanni. “That was a big thing for us, to become part of the community.”

Giovanni said the best business advice he’d received was a rejection. While looking for money to buy the current location, formerly The Deli House, the family went to a bank to obtain a loan and were laughed out of the building. He shook it off then, took out an equity line of credit to combine with a small nest egg to purchase the restaurant. “We bought the place then took classes at Home Depot on how to tile, dry wall, paint,” he said. “We learned to do anything that would eat up our savings.”

Within two months, they served their first dish. Giovanni mentioned that one of the biggest misconceptions of owning a restaurant is seen through cooking channels, like the Food Network. What may look glamorous on TV is not the reality of business ownership. “You have to learn how to wash dishes; you have to learn how to sweep the floors,” Giovanni said. “I can’t show my dishwasher how to sanitize dishes if I don’t know myself.”  

With parting words for any entrepreneur, Giovanni said: “Don’t give up. You have to appreciate the low points and don’t expect too much. Life only gives you things when you are ready to take them.”

Giannfranco’s Trattoria is located at 666 Linden Ave.

Megan Waldrep is a columnist and freelance writer, currently living on a 34-foot sailboat. To learn more about Megan, visit meganwaldrep.com.

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