Montclair’s Italian Colors weathers COVID with flexibility, high standards
By Lou Fancher
Nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, resilience arrives through paradox in 2023 at co-owners Diane Cohen Carlson and chef Alan Carlson’s Italian Colors restaurant.
During an interview with chef Carlson and his son, Dylan Carlson, who stepped up in 2020 to assist his parents with front-of-house management at the Montclair Village establishment in the Oakland hills (italiancolorsrestaurant.com), it’s immediately clear their small business survived when many other dining establishments did not due to an odd, transformational blend enacted and amplified during the pandemic: abundant empathy, impressive flexibility and strict adherence to high ethical practices.
With razor-thin profit margins trimmed to perilous lows by the pandemic lockdowns and mandates that shuttered their doors for indoor dining for most of 2020, the California/Italian-style restaurant established by the family in 1993 was no outlier to the suffering in the industry. Nimbly responding, they positioned three phones on the bar in place 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 had recently graduated from Tufts University in Massachusetts when he returned to Oakland and began helping out at the restaurant even before COVID-19 struck.
Due to an excellent reputation and deep history in the Montclair community, Italian Colors’ regular, longtime customers who favored the Mediterranean slant of Del Giorno, Linguini Vongole, Green Scarves Lasagna and other dishes on the menu, pivoted with alacrity to the food to-go program. Families in the area flocked to order special family meals that included primi or pizza selections, salads, Mom’s Lemon Cake and other choices.
Many people increased their alcohol intake, and Carlson said sales of “take-and-shake” cocktails and wine to-go skyrocketed. Meal deals with the purchase of three bottles of wine offered extras, such as toilet paper and staples like butter, flour and sugar during the early days, when supply chain issues limited availability of everyday grocery items.
Receipts from to-go orders jumped eightfold from before the pandemic. Longtime guitarist Michael Wallenberg came in to play in the parking lot, stemming his own boredom and isolation and adding a festive atmosphere to a situation that was less than celebratory. More than anything, the younger Carlson said it was not hard data points but empathy, patience and conversational skills that became key components of keeping the business up and running.
“People weren’t just calling for to-go food,” he said. “From the jump, my father has been anti-tech companies coming in, like Uber taking as high as a 30% cut (on order deliveries). We came up with a delivery system that kept our employees working and sold food on the phone. We did it all in-house. People liked to pick up food, to drive into the parking lot, to phone us and wave, to pop the trunk and have us put it in. It made life feel more normal.”
Ethics came into play with a 15% service charge added to orders that all went to staff, ensuring front-of-house and kitchen wages would stay higher in light of the loss of tips.
“It was a strategy to combat rising prices in labor and to compete with unemployment. When our staff are putting out food and taking risks and they know they’re getting money out of it, it helps the mindset,” Alan Carlson said. “And Dee (Diane) negotiated with our insurance to have five of our own staff as drivers to deliver. You could have your favorite, familiar servers bring the food right to your home.”
There were also practical menu adjustments.
“We got rid of fried calamari and pastas that don’t travel well,” said Alan Carlson. “I did more braised dishes like lamb shank, more spaghettini and meatballs and made courses larger so you could get two meals out of them.”
As inflation and supply chain issues continue, he said knowing what he should charge and what prices will be accepted requires infinite creativity.
“We’re making pasta in-house. Instead of giving you prime rib, we do flank steaks, a duck breast, more poultry. Scallops went crazy, shooting up from $15 a pound to $60, so we do more octopus.”
He said his whole mindset shifted and because he has never carried a lot of debt, he was able to cut his salary during the first year.
“I could cut it and weather it out. I figured if I made a dime, I was surviving.”
Early on, he mapped out the number of months he could operate at a loss, 30, before having to close. Thankfully Italian Colors never reached that point.
Customer numbers today are beginning to climb, with roughly 65% willing to eat indoors. An outdoor patio that is heated and has well-spaced tables continues to be many customers’ choice. Lately, guests are ordering more fish, steak, lobster and duck confit. Bottles of wine that might previously have been only for special occasions, along with tiramisu, are selling at unprecedented levels.
Dylan Carlson said high food prices at grocery stores have made restaurant dining more attractive and comparable to homemade meals.
“In Montclair, there was also an influx of new families moving from San Francisco,” he said. “They needed space and yards. We definitely saw some change in the clientele, but the most important thing is having a staff capable of taking orders from different customers. We maintain our target audience of families of four.
“For that we need a kitchen that can crank out pizzas for kids. At the same time, we need flexibility and versatility for customers who want a fine dining experience that’s safe and comfortable. We have a lot of elderly folks who appreciate that we’re checking vaccine cards and test staff regularly. We have sick pay so staff stays safe and stays home. Retaining competent staff has been really important.”
His father said customers were appreciative at the start of the pandemic. Large donations came in to support food that they and other Oakland restaurants provided to first responders.
“They were so grateful we were still here because so many of their hangouts were closed. Some people, hearing we needed a grand for a program, wrote a check for $1,000. The Montclair community was amazing,” Alan Carlson said.
Acknowledging that attitudes have pivoted back to high expectations for great food, adequate staffing and supreme atmospherics, he noted that “I thought the other mindset might be permanent, but people are people.”
Adding acceptance to the soft skills and hard allegiance to high standards still being served, Italian Colors is well-equipped to weather future storms.