Colony Grill pizza: A testament to immigrant ingenuity's role in restaurant industry
In the annals of pizza concepts with staying power, Colony Grill's multi-cultural rendition of the pie stands tall, even if its pizza might stir the ire of hard-core Italian heritage pizza fans. But the 83-year-old brand's story is a lesson in the real value of what the American melting pot of cultures means to both the restaurant industry and business in general.
Colony, for those unfamiliar with the brand, started as your basic Irish pub in the Stamford, Connecticut, of 1935. As such, it featured lots of booze, along with the standard pub fare of sandwiches and steaks and the like. It's a business birth that makes it a little mysterious as to how this popular five-location concept became so wildly popular for pizza.
And not just any pizza. Colony Grill's rendition is a spicy hot oil-topped pie with a super-thin crust made up in a size that fits neatly atop the bar, of course. And that's the real story behind this longtime brand. Like America itself, it is an amalgam of all the cultures that worked back in its early days, from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s.
Like some of today's best brands, the employees then wanted to contribute to their employer's overall business success, so they tossed in a few food favorites from their home countries, even as they established new lives and opportunities here on U.S. shores.
The resulting pizza and its years of popularity is living proof that when people of different backgrounds truly contribute to a product and business, the results can often be astounding and long-lived. That's among the many delightful revelations Pizza Marketplace recently uncovered in an interview with Colony Grill co-owner and operator, Ken Martin.
Q: So give us the details of Colony Grill's inception?
A: Our pizza has Irish roots, but it is truly a by-product of the American melting pot that was so apparent in the early 20th Century. Colony Grill began as an Irish tavern in an Irish immigrant neighborhood in Stamford ... but as World War II ended, the kitchen staff at Colony Grill began to diversify (under 50-plus year owner, Eugene "Bo Bo" Bohannon, whose family still has a stake in the brand.)
Men — whose parents had come from Slovakia and Italy and other parts of Europe — began to experiment with some of the recipes brought along from their respective homelands. Before long, the little Irish tavern with a clover on its storefront started to produce, of all things, pizza.
Q: How did that manifest itself in the unusual pie that's so popular today here?
A: With the goal of fitting those pizza trays on the narrow Colony bar top, the kitchen crew concocted not just any pizza, but something more accurately described as the "bar pie." It is (an) extremely thin crust, smaller in diameter than a traditional pizza, and not too much cheese or sauce so that slices could be easily managed with one hand, fittingly leaving the other hand free to hold a glass.
The local Irish crowd — and anyone else who visited Colony Grill — seemingly could not get enough of this unique pizza, which was made even more appealing when drizzled with a spicy, full-of-flavor, pepper-infused creation simply called "hot oil." This was another happy culinary accident inspired by people who had traveled across oceans to get to America.
Eventually, across the decades, the hot oil bar pie became so popular that all the other Colony menu items faded away, as did the need for a grill. But, the name Colony Grill remains as a link to our heritage.
Q: While the conflicts over U.S. immigration policy is not the subject here, it is worth pointing out that there are a lot of strong feelings around this issue. But it seems like customers back in the brand's beginnings were very accepting of not just cultural, but a kind of culinary conglomeration. Is that still the case today?
A: Colony Grill's patrons today are very community-oriented and accepting of cultures, but the middle of the 20th Century was really a unique time in America. The Great Depression had left its mark. We fought in a harrowing war. People seemed to connect viscerally, and perhaps the small differences between families or cultures weren't as important as the realization that they had come out on the other side alive.
Communication was different then, too, given that people spoke face-to-face rather than via text or email. It was likely more difficult to not be accepting from such proximity back then. ...There is perhaps more anonymity for people to hide behind these days. Overall, though, we believe the people who visit Colony Grill are the best customers on the planet.
Q: Looking back at those 1930s roots and the restaurant environment then, up until now, what's different and what's the common theme, if there is one?
A: Local restaurants were not as fancy, expensive or as thematic in the 1930s. ... Meals were sustenance rather than pieces of art. ... Disposable income was indispensable for so many Americans. Who had time or money to spend at a restaurant? Today, ... people eat out of the home so much more often — disposable income be damned.
We have tried to bridge the gap generationally at Colony Grill, appreciating the simplicity and unambiguity of that bygone era with the comfort and polish of modern dining. Hopefully, we provide a meeting place for people to connect with one another as they did so many years ago for generations to come.
Q: So then, how does a brand with these distinguished roots evolve?
A:First and foremost, by keeping the menu solely dedicated to pizza. Although perhaps counterintuitive to some, (that) really gives Colony Grill a point of differentiation. We try to deliver the best experience in one area and do one thing really well.
Since becoming involved with the brand in 2010 — (when) we just had the original location — we quickly grew to now having five locations with sales consistently trending upwards year-over-year. Our mission has similarly expanded and crystalized above and beyond the great pizza we serve.
We've looked to become a community partner across all the communities we have a presence in. There is more work to do every day but we are proud of who we are as a company, and continue to work toward becoming a top workplace in our industry.
Q: Of course, the U.S. is currently deeply divided over the issue of immigration, but that's not our focus here. However, in this brand's case, how did all those immigrant workers and their cultures lend themselves to what the brand is now?
A:People from Ireland, the Baltics, the Mediterranean and South America, to name a few, helped shape our present success by way of their collective legacies. Today, that tradition continues as our current team influences our work every day, fueling the progress we are trying to maintain with a wide variety of backgrounds and cultural attributes.
We have managers from South Africa and Ecuador. We have had servers from Russia and Canada. We have owners whose grandparents came through Ellis Island. The American Dream lives on as much today as it did in 1935, when Colony Grill was first established.
Q: The brand is so popular, why have the owners chosen to keep it relatively small, rather than "taking it on the road," so to speak?
A: We prioritize cultivating the right team members who run the restaurant day-to-day and feel that's more important than placing focus on any pre-determined number of restaurant units (which is not something written on the wall of our main office).
We will continue to grow if we have the right people who are willing to convey the Colony Grill mission, which is something that is actually written on our walls
Feature photo: iStock
Inset photos: Colony Grill
Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.