Former ad exec launches magazine celebrating Toronto restaurant scene

By Meagan Gillmore

If Peter Mazzotta were an entrée, he would be linguine with artichoke hearts, in pesto, with sundried tomatoes and grilled chicken.

By Meagan Gillmore

If Peter Mazzotta were an entrée, he would be linguine with artichoke hearts, in pesto, with sundried tomatoes and grilled chicken.

More than 20 years ago, he was the first customer at Toronto’s Spacco restaurant. The waiter asked what he wanted, and, after looking at the menu, Mazzotta described this linguine dish, which the kitchen custom-made for him. Mazzotta became a regular, always choosing this meal. “Pasta di Pietro” soon became popular with other diners, earning a spot on the menu for five years.

It’s fitting. The former advertising executive has always had a passion for food—he was cooking full-course meals for his parents and seven sisters at age nine. And now, with his new monthly magazine, LEO (Let’s Eat Out)<, he hopes to promote Toronto’s finest establishments.

This is Mazzotta’s first time publishing a magazine. He has no aspirations to be a premier writer. He’s conducted feature-length interviews for LEO, published in a question-and-answer format, but eventually he just wants to write the publisher’s letter, he said. Some may wonder how many letters he’ll be able to write. An unstable economy has seen many print publications shrink, migrate online or shut down all together. And restaurants aren’t always stable, either. 

But Mazzotta has been planning this publication long before the economic downturn of the last half-decade or so. He’s been working on the magazine, mainly informally, for 26 years. During his first week at a Toronto advertising agency, he was taken to lunch every day. Mazzotta was impressed. It made him want to tell the stories of the “unsung heroes” who, in his estimation, make Toronto one of the top five global restaurant destinations.

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In 2009, he was let go from Euro RSCG Life, now Havas Life, where he was a vice-president. That “golden handshake” gave him the chance to make the magazine a reality. In July, complimentary copies of LEO magazine appeared in select Toronto restaurants. Another issue circulated in December. The first paid issue will hit Chapters and Indigo stores across the GTA this week, and readers can get a year-long monthly subscription for $61.

The reception from the restaurant community has been overwhelmingly positive, said Mazzotta. But he also knows people are baffled by the thought of starting a print publication in these uncertain times. In an interview in mid-December, he addressed the question without it even being asked.

“When I first came up with the idea, there was no digital nothing,” he said. And his vision of the magazine hasn’t changed much from the original idea in 1987. “This digital revolution that we’re in, it’s only strengthened my ambition to do a print magazine.”

Forget paywalls. LEO’s website doesn’t include any articles. Its social media presence is a Facebook page with roughly 2,000 likes.

Mazzotta isn’t opposed to digital media. But with so much online, he needed to distinguish his publication from others. That meant sticking to print. “(LEO) has been a very tactile project: something that you have to feel, touch, breathe, smell, flip, put away and then bring back—never throw away,” he said.

Besides, he said, restaurants and print magazines are similar: they provide people a place to relax. (According to Magazines Canada, the average reader spends about 40 minutes with a magazine, compared to seconds scanning online.)

“This is not a money-making venture. It was never meant to be a money-making venture,” explained Mazzotta. Look no further than the back cover. It is free of ads, and always will be.

The entire operation is self-funded, although Mazzotta plans on applying for government grants. LEO has four full-time staff, including himself. Writers and photographers are freelancers. But Mazzotta’s plans go beyond the magazine. He wants to partner with school boards to bring chefs into the classroom to inspire students to consider a culinary career. Later in the year, he hopes to host The LEOs. The LEOs are like the Oscars, but for restaurants: people can vote for their favourites, and the trophies, which Mazotta plans on making himself, will be handed out at a gala charity fundraiser.

Central to LEO is the LEO MAD (Make a Difference) initiative. Every month, Mazotta hopes to donate some of the magazine’s revenue will be donated to worthy causes, like women’s shelters or food programs. Readers are encouraged to suggest specific charities.

As of mid-January, the magazine had yet to contribute to any charities. Generating revenue may take a while; most magazines don’t make money for three to five years.  

And LEO isn’t like most. It’s oversized, more like a coffee-table book, with pages about three times the thickness of those in most magazines. LEO retails for $6.95 on newsstands. With a circulation of 5,000, it’s classified as a small-circulation publication. There are 650 subscribers.

“I went into it with my eyes wide open,” Mazzotta said; his estimated printing costs were only 10 per cent off the quote he received.

He may not be as big a gambler as it appears. The number of Canadian magazines—about 2,000 in all—has remained stable during the past eight years. In 2011, the latest year for which numbers are available, 19 new print magazines started while only two closed. (Granted, that’s the highest number of starts for the past few years. In 2008, 74 print publications started. The next year, that number dropped to 17.)

But reliance on print isn’t LEO’s only distinguishing factor. It focuses exclusively on restaurants, covering topics like nutritious dining and etiquette for children and adults. Another regular subject is Toronto’s global flavours—a feature Mazzotta believes makes the city unique. His magazine has been compared to The Grid, Toronto Life or the restaurant sections of major newspapers. But he doesn’t fully agree. Those publications cover other topics: politics, religion, fashion, real estate. LEOis all about restaurants.

It doesn’t serve negativity. Criticism will “never, ever, ever” appear in its pages. Often, reviews are written when a restaurant is new and still finding its way, said Mazzotta, so it’s not fair to base an opinion on one experience. A positive review can make an average restaurant appear stellar; a credible establishment can suffer after one unfavourable write-up.

And the general public isn’t much help either, with its tendency to rush online and vent after returning home from a less-than-satisfactory dining experience.

Instead, LEOcelebrates local restaurants. Its main revenue stream is restaurant listings, organized by street, in the back of the magazine. The fee is minimal – Mazzotta compares it to the cost of buying a cappuccino every week. About 630 restaurants list with LEO; the goal is 2,000. (Mazzotta maintains these aren’t endorsements. He pitches the businesses. “We have to try it. We have a conscience.”) Online, restaurants will be searchable by cuisine or neighbourhood; a mobile app may be developed, said Mazzotta. There’s also talk of producing a LEO radio show.

The format could work in other Canadian cities, like Montreal or Vancouver, but Mazzotta doesn’t want to get too big; that would dilute the product, he said.

Mazzotta may have been a linguine, but LEO has a more general flavor. It would be that “local restaurant with a great, exciting fantastic chef who buys all his produce and supplies from the local farmer,” he said. “Nothing pretentious about us, just good, amazing quality experience. And a few laughs, hopefully.”

Meagan Gillmore graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford, Ont., campus in 2011. That year, she won the David S. Barr Award in the college division from The Newspaper Guild-CWA. She worked as a freelance writer before landing a job as a newspaper reporter with the Yukon News in Whitehorse. She currently attends the Book and Magazine Publishing Program at Centennial College in Toronto.



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