7 July 2023

'Lessons from Dad': Il Corso Cafe boss on overcoming a pandemic and labour shortage

| Oliver Jacques
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Joesph and John Gioia at the cafe, seated

Joseph Gioia describes his dad John as his best friend. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

As the Riverina struggles with its worst labour shortage in decades, Griffith’s Il Corso Cafe has somehow managed to thrive.

“We’re never really short on staff,” co-owner Joseph Gioia said. “We very rarely need to advertise.”

“Those that work here tell other people it’s a good place to work. We have customers asking if we have jobs going. Word of mouth travels fast.”

The 34-year-old says the secret to staff retention is creating a family-like environment among his 58 employees.

“I know all about my staff, their parents, their partners and children. The better understanding I have of them, the more lenient I am when something goes wrong. I might hear that a girl seems lazy today, but I’d say ‘No, no, if you knew what they were going through, you’d cut her slack’”.

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COVID was his toughest challenge, but even during the worst of the pandemic the restaurant came out ahead.

“The day we found out about COVID, I brought all the staff together. I was crying, I didn’t know what it meant. It was so scary. But we worked really hard, supported each other and I didn’t have to put anyone off. We even hired a few extra people.”

Putting staff first is something Joseph said he learned from his father, John, a 64-year-old icon of the Griffith dining scene who owns the other 50 per cent of the Italian restaurant.

“He is the father figure to everyone that works here. He won’t let anyone come and go without saying goodbye. He won’t talk to anyone until he has a coffee, but once he’s had his cup he’ll say ‘Come and tell me your problems’. He puts out fires before they start.”

Inside of an old Italian restaurant

Vita’s Italian restaurant was also owned by the Gioia family. Photo: truelocal.com.au.

John once owned Griffith’s oldest restaurant, Belvedere, then in the 1990s he ran the popular eatery Vita’s Italian Restaurant while Joseph was growing up.

“I was a naughty kid, I remember walking behind the counter, the waitress Joanne pulled me by the ear and said you’re not allowed here. Then, she found out I was the boss’s son.”

Some 22 years later, Joanne Thornton now works for Joseph at Il Corso.

“I might be her boss, but I’m like a son to Joanne. I’ve known her my whole life.

“All up, we’ve got five staff that have been with us for more than 10 years, and a lot more who have done five to eight years, which is incredible in hospitality.”

Joseph Gioia and Jo Thornton outside the restaurant

Joseph says he’s like a son to Joanne Thornton, who has worked at Il Corso for more than 22 years. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

After finishing school, Joseph first worked in real estate, but spent his nights and weekends washing dishes and preparing meals at his family’s restaurants. He bought into the Il Corso Cafe six years ago and hasn’t looked back.

“I always wanted to work with my father. With him, not for him. At work, things couldn’t be better. He steps aside and lets me have my say.

“We have lunch together, we have wine together, we cut pizzas next to each other and muck around while we are working – we are best friends. We hug and kiss each other every time we leave.”

Joseph makes most of the business decisions, drawing on the near half-century of his dad’s expertise.

“He can see what 99 per cent of people can’t see. He can read body language. You can only get that from experience, you can’t learn it from a book.”

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Dad’s most important lesson is simple: be loyal to your community.

“I once told my dad that I can get some running shoes online really cheap. He said ‘No, go to GB Sports Store [in town]’.

“We buy everything locally; it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit more expensive. That’s what it means to be in Griffith. Everyone supports each other.”

Il Corso Cafe, which serves pizza, pasta and other authentic Italian dishes, is at 140 Banna Ave and is open seven days a week. Check out the website for opening hours.

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