The owners of a successful restaurant chain never planned to stay in Utah

The Zanatta family, originally from Brazil, has grown Aubergine Kitchen to seven locations, with two more opening soon.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elcio and Mirian Zanatta, owners of Aubergine Kitchen restaurant in Draper, Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.

When Elcio Zanatta was 13 — growing up in Brazil in a family that was “very rich in love, very poor in material things,” he said — his mother made a fateful decision: She bought Elcio an expensive encyclopedia.

“She knew I loved to read, and she knew I was a good student,” said Zanatta, who co-owns Utah’s Aubergine Kitchen restaurants with his wife, Mirian. “When I started reading the encyclopedia, it was about the most famous people from all over the world: Thomas Edison, Mozart and Beethoven. And I realized there was a pattern. Most of them grew up in a small village and would go to the big cities for new opportunities.”

So when he turned 17, Zanatta left his small town of Uberlândia, in southwestern Brazil, to the nearby city of Sao Paolo. He earned a degree in engineering — and two years into his schooling, proposed to Mirian, his sweetheart from Uberlândia.

Elcio also decided that if he really wanted to pursue bigger opportunities, he needed to learn English.

“I didn’t learn English when I was young,” he said. “When my two children were growing up, I thought, ‘They will never suffer like I did to learn English.’” The Zanattas moved to England, then to Switzerland, where Elcio earned his MBA. And just as he’d promised, his children, Eduardo and Julia, grew up speaking English.

In 2005, Eduardo was accepted to Brigham Young University, and the family decided to move to Utah, though they eventually planned to move back to Brazil. But then, Elcio said, Eduardo and Julia each decided to marry Americans. “So we decided to stay,” Elcio said.

Learning the restaurant trade

Now the challenge for Elcio and Mirian was creating a career in the States. A friend from Brazil had just opened a steakhouse in Florida, and the Zanattas moved there so Elcio could learn the ropes in the restaurant business.

“I learned the basics,” he said. “We helped him open more restaurants. And then after four years, we said, ‘It’s time to be closer to our children again,’ so we moved back to Utah. … We started looking at businesses to buy, but there was nothing that touched my heart.”

It was during a business seminar in California — and a session about how nutrition affects energy levels and brain function — when Elcio said he thought of the concept that would become Aubergine Kitchen.

“I asked my wife to make food in a different way,” he said. “The way you eat is the way you have power, you have energy, you have health.” He added, with a chuckle, “she didn’t buy much the idea, nor my children.”

Eventually Mirian, who is of Lebanese ancestry, began modifying her family recipes, Elcio said.

“She has a talent for food. And we loved it. They were still very delicious, but very healthy,” Elcio said. “Then we invited friends, neighbors, and people loved it. It was very different. And then I asked, ‘Why not to open a small cafe?’”

The Zanattas spent two years testing recipes, eventually opening their first Aubergine Kitchen at 530 E. University Parkway in Orem in the spring of 2014.

Right from the start, Zanatta said, the restaurant stuck with some principles: The food must be tasty and healthy, not one or the other; it must be made from scratch; it must never be fried, only baked or grilled; and the focus is on nutrients, not calories. There’s also an absolute ban on refined sugar — most of the sweetness in their dishes comes from dates, with a little bit of monk fruit and stevia.

But Aubergine didn’t, and doesn’t, have a spartan, seedy, health-food vibe. Menu items include bowls, pitas, wraps, and such sides as chicken bites. It could be called Mediterranean, but Zanatta said that word doesn’t cover it completely.

“My wife has Lebanese origins, and I am Italian in background. You do see in scientific studies that Mediterranean food is good, maybe the best for your body,” he said. “But we want to offer people the best food from many origins, not just Mediterranean. For instance, we cook with curry.”

The name came from their time in England. “They say ‘aubergine’ instead of ‘eggplant.’ It’s a French word,” Zanatta said. “And Lebanese food has many aubergine plates, and so does the south of France. And we thought, this name is cute! Aubergine, it has French roots, and we thought the vegetable is cute.”

No sodas? In Utah County?

A week before they opened, the Zanattas were hanging out with some friends, and someone asked what kind of soda they would be serving. Elcio said they would be serving juices — the menu now includes strawberry lemonade, cucumber mint lemonade, pineapple/ginger juice, and a couple types of iced tea — but no sodas.

“He told me that no restaurant has ever succeeded in Utah County without soda,” Zanatta said. “That night was so long. But I always stick to my vision. And we have never deviated from that.”

The Zanattas’ dedication to their ideals has paid off. The chain now has five locations after their Orem restaurant: 2122 Highland Drive in Sugar House, 499 E. 12300 South in Draper, 4554 W. Partridge Hill Lane in Riverton, 430 Ashton Blvd. in Lehi, and 232 NW State St. in American Fork.

Zanatta said he’s particularly proud of the chain’s newest location, in the food court at Utah Valley University in Orem, which opened just as the school year was starting. “When I look at that, I think, ‘If I could have learned what I know now [about food] when I was young, it would be so great.’”

Two more locations are set to open before the end of the year: At 553 S. Mall Drive in St. George, set for Oct. 18; and at 1076 W. Park Lane in Farmington in December.

Aubergine Kitchen, Zanatta said, visited a lot of Utah County schools before the COVID-19 pandemic, and he said he hopes to return to “teaching kids how to eat better.”

“It was a beautiful project,” he said. “We taught about 2,000 small kids. Some of them said, I never ate cucumber in my life. It was interesting. We were eating vegetables, drinking healthy smoothies. … We want to start this again, but in a higher volume.” That will probably look a little bit more like teacher education, rather than going into schools, visit by visit.

For now, they’re reaching kids through the food they serve in their restaurants, including healthier versions of such staples as mac ‘n’ cheese. And, of course, no sodas.

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