Avery Wang

On May 1, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Carmen’s Italian Ice opened a new location in the Shoppes of Olney. Carmen’s replaced Rita’s Italian Ice and Custard, which permanently closed down last winter.

In addition to the standard opening process requirements, Carmen’s faced pandemic-related challenges, such as addressing staff concerns about health and safety and overhauling their marketing strategies. The Olney location, which is part of a local chain, passed a health department inspection before opening and currently follows all CDC guidelines. 

“When [COVID-19] started, I wanted to be in the Rockville store and get things off the ground and make sure my staff knew we were following everything,” said Jason Mandler, the owner of Carmen’s Italian Ice. “As the pandemic got worse and worse, we just kept on plugging away and plugging away.”

Mandler started looking at new store locations last November and had already signed a lease agreement by early March. He attributed the quick building construction and approval process to a reliable contractor and similar blueprint to Rita’s Italian Ice shop layout, which didn’t require any electrical work or extensive construction. 

During construction, some contractors and electricians raised concerns about health and safety procedures, stating that they wouldn’t work on certain days or if other people were present. Some staff members, especially first-time job holders, were initially hesitant but ultimately decided to work. 

“If it was their first job …  their parents wanted them to wait a little bit longer. Later, they would call me and say, ‘Alright, I see what you guys are doing — you’ve got the take-out windows, and my parents have been here, and it looks alright. I’ll come back to work,’” Mandler said. “There definitely [were] some challenges.”

All Carmen’s employees are required to wear masks and regularly wash their hands or use hand sanitizer. Customers are not allowed inside any stores, even to use the restroom. Instead, they must order through a walk-up window or ahead online. Mandler said that other than mask and social distancing recommendations, most of Carmen’s health and safety protocols are standard food industry practice. 

“Based upon the precautions that we’ve taken, and how close our group of employees are …  like work family, [I feel] completely safe,” said Brian, the manager of the Olney location. “We’ve done everything that we need to do to provide safety …. keeping the masses of people …  away from [the employees].”

A walk-up window was already in place at Rita’s and has helped limit contact between Carmen’s staff and customers. The Rockville location also installed a walk-up window. 

“We weren’t sure how long this was going to last … we needed to have walk-up windows in Rockville or nobody was going to come inside because it was too narrow and too small,” Mandler said. “We’re really fortunate we have had those up in the first week in April.” 

Many restaurants have implemented contactless curb-side pickup. Carmen’s has had an advance ordering system through ChowNow and UberEats for the past two years, but rarely received orders through the app until the pandemic hit.

The pandemic also forced Carmen’s team to be creative and rethink their marketing strategies. To publicize the opening, Carmen’s-owned ice cream trucks would park near the Olney location. On social media, the store would announce the menu and ice cream truck hours. 

“I think people appreciated the fact that we were going forward with our plans and … a little bit of normalcy,” Mandler said. 

Carmen’s Olney store is located at 3233 Spartan Rd., Olney, Maryland.