Luciana Gencarelli, our NJ Mompreneur of the Week, had always been an entrepreneur at heart, and as she started up the corporate ladder, it was clear a desk job wasn’t her calling. But Luciana was passionate about food and its power to prevent disease and lead a healthier lifestyle. So after six months, Luciana quit her corporate job and drew up plans to start her own business—Zest began online as Luciana worked from a commercial kitchen and spent countless hours perfecting recipes and meal plans. It became a hit, and three years later, she opened a storefront in her hometown of Fairfield, serving up gluten-and-dairy-free meals, smoothies, and bakery treats. Today, her husband TJ (he brings the baking expertise) works alongside her, making food for everyone to enjoy and feel good about eating it. We caught up with this mama of a toddler to discover why she opened her storefront in her hometown, the secret to successfully working with your spouse, and the Morris County park trails she can’t wait to hike next spring with her family.
Tell us a little bit about your background. My husband, TJ, and I grew up in Fairfield, met in our 20s, and have been married for about 4 years. Our daughter, Serafina, is 1 year old now. Fairfield is one of those great, close-knit towns with a lot of family around, and now that we have Zest here, I can’t imagine us ever leaving.
You left your first full-time job after just 6 months of working there to become an entrepreneur. Why did you decide to go and do your own thing? I’d always been an entrepreneur at heart. When I was young, I’d sell stuff I no longer wanted to my sister and make bracelets at home to sell in school. I studied business in college, graduated a semester early, and did some job hopping in the finance and food industries. I knew I loved working in the food industry, but being strapped behind a desk wasn’t for me—I wanted to be on my own. I’ve always been passionate about food and cooking healthy, holistic meals for myself and others. The basis for zest roots from all the holistic powers food has in generating energy and preventing disease. With a business background, I knew I could do something cooking up delicious, nutritious meals, snacks, and desserts. It seemed like the perfect fit.
What were the first few steps you took to launch your business? I started Zest as an online business based out of a commercial kitchen, and after a few years, I decided to open a brick-and-mortar storefront. I researched by calling companies in the area to help me project the costs and revenue of the business and created a spreadsheet. And though I’d been looking in larger cities like Morristown and Montclair, my dad (who works in real estate) recommended Fairfield because it has many businesses and good access to highways. It was a good decision to open here.
You and your husband now work together. How has the business changed since he came on board, and how do you divide the responsibilities? When my husband and I were dating, he worked at his father’s bakery and would come and help me after working the night shift there. Though we were only dating when his dad sold the bakery business, he decided to come on board and work with me, and his bakery experience has helped us with that aspect of Zest. We joke that it works because he’s in the back kitchen while I’m in the front, and there’s a wall separating us, but the truth is we do help each other out so much, and it just works for us.
Has becoming a mom changed how you approach and execute your business? When I was pregnant with my daughter, I switched to working 6 days a week instead of 7, which was a hard change to the process. After Serafina arrived, my mindset changed—it was important to me to have a better work-life balance. I had been scheduled to have a c-section, which I’d hoped would be after November 6th because that’s when I had my biggest catering order. Still, the doctor switched my scheduled c-section to that date, and I scrambled to make it work—luckily, I had some old employees that stepped up and helped make it happen. Unexpected things will always come up, and if you think it through, you can make it work.
What’s the best thing about being an NJ Mompreneur? More than anything, it’s seeing my daughter at Zest. She has so much fun interacting with the customers, and you can see how comfortable she is and how much she enjoys it. She’s also inspired us to do a baby meal prep—she loves eating healthy, and our meal prep makes it easy for other little ones to do the same.
What are some of your favorite NJ businesses? The Little Words Project has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and their unique bracelets have always been my go-to for gift-giving. I love them so much that we now carry them at Zest. I also have to give Le Papillon Hair Studio a shoutout. They are an all-natural, local salon where I get my hair cut and blown out, and I also get my makeup done there for special occasions. I went to high school with the owner, and it’s just a relaxing, great salon.
Please share some places in NJ that you and your family enjoy. We enjoy taking Serafina to all the different local parks. Verona Park is our favorite, and Pyramid Mountain is one we look forward to doing as a family when the weather turns warm again—it has such beautiful trails.
What’s your best piece of advice for an NJ Mompreneur just starting? Owning your own business is a lot of hard work but worth it when you love it. Make your business something you can imagine spending as much time as you’ll spend on your kids because a business is like having another child without being able to hire a babysitter.