Almost three years of resistance to the COVID-19 pandemic will come, paradoxically, in 2023 at the Italian Colors restaurant of co-owners Diane Cohen Carlson and chef Alan Carlson.
During a 2020 interview with chef Carlson and his son Dylan Carlson, who came to help his parents run the establishment at Montclair Village (italiancolorsrestaurant.com) in the Oakland Hills, their small business was immediately apparent. many other dining establishments have survived in the absence of a strange, transformative mix adopted and reinforced during the pandemic: abundant empathy, impressive flexibility, and strict adherence to highly ethical practices.
The family-founded California/Italian-style restaurant in 1993 wasn’t immune to the industry’s woes, with razor-thin profit margins shrunk to perilous lows by the fallout from the pandemic and mandates that closed its doors for indoor dining for most of 2020. . Quick to respond, they placed three phones on the bar instead of the usual Manhattans, margaritas and cucumber martinis.
“We set up a phone bank and spent all day handling calls,” said Dylan Carlson, 26, who recently graduated from Tufts University in Massachusetts when he returned to Oakland and started helping out at a restaurant before the COVID-19 onslaught.
Thanks to its excellent reputation and deep history in the Montclair community, Italian Colors at the crossroads of the Mediterranean have loyal, long-time customers who enjoy Del Giorno, Linguini Vongole, green scarf lasagna and other dishes on the menu. transition program. Families in the area have flocked to order special family meals that include primi or pizza choices, salads, Mom’s Lemon Cake and other choices.
Many people have increased their alcohol consumption, and Carlson said sales of grab-and-shake cocktails and wine have skyrocketed. The food supply chain is busy buying an extra three bottles of wine to be offered in the same way as toilet paper and staples like butter, flour and sugar during the first few days when the availability of daily groceries is limited.
Pre-pandemic bookings increased eightfold. Longtime guitarist Michael Wallenberg came to play in the parking lot, ending his boredom and isolation and adding a festive atmosphere to a non-celebratory setting. Most importantly, Carlson Jr. said, it’s not hard data points, but empathy, patience and conversational skills that have become key ingredients to sustaining a business.
“People weren’t just calling to eat,” he said. “After the jump, anti-tech companies like my dad, Uber, took a 30% cut (of order deliveries). We invented a delivery system that employs employees and sells food over the phone. We did it all at home. People loved getting food, going to the parking lot, calling us, waving, opening the trunk and putting it in. It made life feel normal.”
Ethica added a 15% service charge to orders sent to all employees, ensuring higher front-of-house and kitchen wages due to the loss of tips.
“It was a strategy to deal with rising labor costs and to compete with unemployment. When our employees put food away and take a risk and know they’re going to get paid for it, it helps to think,” said Alan Carlson. “And Dee (Diane) has to negotiate with our insurance and have five of our own employees as drivers to deliver. You can bring your favorite, familiar servers to your home.
There were also some practical menu tweaks.
“We got rid of fried calamari and macaroni, which didn’t go down well,” Alan Carlson said. “I made more roasts like lamb chops, spaghettini and meatballs, and made the dishes bigger so I could get two meals out of them.”
As inflation and supply chain issues continue, he said, knowing what to get and what prices are acceptable will require endless creativity.
“We make pasta at home. Instead of giving you prime rib, we do flank steaks, duck breast, more poultry. Scallops have gone crazy, going from $15 to $60 a pound, so we’re making more octopus.”
He thinks his whole mindset changed and he was able to take a pay cut the first year because he never had much debt.
“I can cut it and beat it. I thought that if I found a penny, I would be saved.”
Early on, he mapped out the number of months he could operate at a loss before having to close, 30 months. Fortunately, the Italian colors never reached this point.
Today, the number of consumers is increasing, about 65% are willing to eat at home. The outdoor area, with its heated and well-placed tables, remains the choice of many customers. Recently, guests have been ordering more fish, steak, lobster and duck confit. Bottles of wine, which used to only accompany tiamisu on special occasions, are being sold at unprecedented levels.
According to Dylan Carlson, the high prices of food at grocery stores made restaurant cuisine comparable to home cooking and more appealing.
“Montclair has had an influx of new families moving in from San Francisco,” he said. “They needed space and a yard. We have seen some changes in our clientele, but the most important thing is to have staff who can take orders from a variety of customers. We follow the target audience of families of four.
“For that, we need a kitchen where children can prepare pizza. In addition, we need flexibility and versatility for customers who want a safe and convenient dining experience. We have many seniors who appreciate our regular checking of vaccine cards and testing staff. We have sick pay to keep our employees safe and stay at home. It was very important to retain competent personnel.
His father said customers were happy at the beginning of the pandemic. Large donations came in to support food provided by themselves and other Oakland restaurants to first responders.
“They were very happy that we were still here because a lot of their entertainment venues had closed. Some people wrote checks for $1,000 when they heard they needed a grand for a program. The Montclair community has been amazing,” said Alan Carlson.
Acknowledging that those attitudes revolved around high expectations for great food, adequate staff and a high atmosphere, he noted, “I thought a different mindset might be sustainable, but people are people.”
Combining the adoption of soft skills and a strict commitment to high standards that still serve, Italian Colors is well equipped to weather future storms.
Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact him at [email protected]