In 1972, when Cache Valley couple Peggy Chanson and John Harder weren’t studying at Utah State University, they would frequent a sandwich shop called The Italian Place.
It was run by a man with Northeastern roots, selling sandwiches with names like “the New Yorker,” and had a theme reminiscent of “The Godfather,” the legendary film released that year.
“We thought they were so fun and different,” Chanson said.
But Harder was thinking about something beyond food.
“John kept saying, ‘Hey, George, why don’t you sell me this,’” said Chanson, referring to the restaurant’s owner at the time. “The next spring, George came to us and said, ‘Do you want to buy it?’ So we did.”
The tacky decor that came with the former Italian Place was removed, but not the name. And since 1973, Harder and Chanson have been the owners of what’s become known as a Cache Valley institution.
Until now. After 47 years, the couple are handing over the business and the space it occupies to M&W LLC. Local businessman Courtney Larsen was tapped to run day-to-day operations.
“We just felt like it’s time. We’re old, we’re tired,” Chanson said. “It was time for new blood and new ideas, new energy.”
She believes Larsen has all those qualities.
“Running a restaurant, you start over every day,” Chanson said. “You don’t really have downtime — even on a day off, the air conditioning goes out. The energy level is pretty important.”
Courtney Larsen’s vision
Larsen was born in Cache Valley and started cooking at 16 at the Juniper Inn, before it burned down.
Then he took off for new culinary adventures, down south in Salt Lake City and even as far as Indonisia.
But his return to the valley happened because the Nibley-based bedding company, Malouf, asked him to run their corporate dining program. Larsen left that post in February.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, he was “looking for space” and when the new LLC that took ownership of The Italian Place came calling, Larsen was their man.
Asked what attracted him to The Italian Place, he said he not only grew up eating there but believes the eatery has concepts that aren’t broken.
“I think it works,” Larsen said. “I think you can improve it over time just by keeping the same items but give them a little more care; give them the chef’s eye, step it up. But it’s not going to change a whole lot.”
Chanson’s eldest daughter, Alex Chanson, who has been acting manager of The Italian Place, said she is impressed with Larsen’s “scientific attitude” to the business before he even gets started.
“He’s interested in studying how the business works before making any drastic changes,” Alex said. “I was a little worried, at first, with the new ownership, that everything would change overnight, and I’ve been really impressed with his sense of history and tradition. I think he understands how much this place means to so many people.”
A valley institution
Located on Federal Avenue, The Italian Place specializes in sub sandwiches with an Italian flare. Pepperoni, provolone cheese, oil dressing and pastrami are all toppings you’d expect from an eatery with that name — but that doesn’t mean The Italian Place isn’t willing to throw in a few more on the American side. Eggs, green pepper, mayonnaise and even cream cheese are all add-ons available to customers when they place their order.
“You can say the weirdest combination in the world and we’ll have it out for you in two minutes,” Chanson said.
She explained how The Italian Place specializes in “that sort of grinder-type sandwich” with ingredients that are fresh every day from local distributors.
“It’s fast, it’s good, simple, fresh food, and I think that’s what’s kept us going all these years,” Chanson said.
Peggy and John’s hospitality
What else has kept The Italian Place going are the longtime customers, which span multiple generations. Chanson said folks young and old have flocked to the restaurant, including people who moved away from Cache Valley to bigger metro areas. She described a Chicago man, for example, who found it in his heart to donate to The Italian Place to help keep the business going during the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked what she wanted to say to everyone after 47 years in business, Chanson noted her and John’s appreciation for their customers’ loyalty. Not only that quality, but “just being terrific people, sharing their lives with us.”
“We want The Italian Place to go on,” she said. “We’re really wishing Courtney all the best and people will support him to the extent they supported us. Their support and friendship made all the difference.”
Alex said the transfer of The Italian Place’s ownership happened the way it should have.
“Obviously, it was a bit of a shock when I first heard about it just because it had been a consistent thing in the community and my life, in particular, for so many years,” she said. “Peg and John worked really hard on this business for years and years. The fact that those two found a decent buyer and are going to be able to have the retirement they deserve is a really good ending, I think.”
Larsen also wanted to lend his thanks to Chanson and Harder.
“They’ve got a good concept. … If someone can run it for 50 years, they must be doing something right,” Larsen said.
But maybe under his leadership, Larsen won’t be so much of a “Sandwich Nazi,” a parody of the “Soup Nazi” from a notable Seinfeld episode.
“John’s got a reputation for being a bit of a pesterer, I suppose,” Larsen said. “I’m not sure I have the same personality. I’ll probably be a little different.”