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By Mike Hazlip—
Citrus Heights resident Natalee Price has a hard time hearing the word no; but that’s one of the things that helped this determined mother of five achieve her dream of graduating college while running a restaurant full time with her husband.
Thirteen years ago, the couple opened Taste of Tuscany just outside the city limits at Antelope Road and Roseville Road — a dream Price said her husband, Jeremy, always had wanted.
“We started this business in 2008 because my husband won $68,000 at the Kentucky Derby,” she said in a recent interview with The Sentinel. “We put all our chickens in this basket. There was no backup plan.”
The restaurant offers a variety of Italian dishes and Price says the items are made from scratch using as much locally sourced ingredients as she can find. She also features local musicians on weekends.
“Anytime we can support local, we absolutely do,” she said.
Price had two children at the time they started the restaurant, and three more soon followed. She eventually dropped out of American River College with only two classes left before she would have qualified to transfer to a university.
By 2018, the 10-year-old restaurant was in a stable position, and knowing the window of opportunity to complete her degree was passing, Price decided to go back to school to finish her degree. Just a few years later, COVID would upend the restaurant industry.
“It’s been a roller coaster. The pandemic threw us more challenges than we ever knew,” she said. “We didn’t know how we were going to survive.”
But the couple sought creative ways to survive and also help others. With many area restaurants suddenly left with surplus food they couldn’t sell, Price said she and her husband bought perishables for pennies on the dollar and redistributed food to the community.
She estimates they fed over 7,000 people, and credits the restaurant’s success — which includes nearly 1,000 reviews on Yelp — to their philosophy of giving back to their community.
“God got us through [our first] customer in a Home Depot shopping center (and) all the way through a pandemic, because we give back,” she said. “I truly believe what we have is not for us, it is for the benefit of all.”
One significant hurdle for Price was establishing an online ordering system for customers, as well as delivery services such as DoorDash. Taste of Tuscany relied mainly on dine-in customers before pandemic shutdown orders forced the couple to pivot to curbside pickup.
Without receiving any Paycheck Protection Program funds, they also made changes to employee hours to keep the restaurant going. With fewer hours available to work during the shutdown, they shifted more hours to those employees who had families or who were not living at home. They also started tip-sharing, a practice that continues through the reopening.
“What we realized is: as a team, when everybody cares, you get better service,” Price said.
Somehow, in the midst of keeping their business running throughout the shutdown, shuttling her children to two different schools, and community projects with the Lions Club, Price managed to graduate Magna Cum Lade from California State University Sacramento with a bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology and a minor in Communication Studies in May of 2021.
She has also been recognized by a number of community organizations for her service to the community, including LIONS Club and the Citrus Heights Area 10 neighborhood association.
“How do I do it?,” she said. “I don’t sleep! You get up and you just do it. You get up and realize nobody else is going to do it, and you do it.”
Her days begin around 6 a.m. and she said she typically puts in about 60 hours each week at Taste of Tuscany. Price says stories from her employees and the ever-present homeless population in the area gave her the rich material she needed for the essays in her cultural anthropology classes.
Looking back, Price is proud of her accomplishments, and says she and her husband were forced to make changes because of the pandemic.
“We kept everybody employed who wanted to be employed,” Price said, noting some employees were concerned about the coronavirus, while others found it preferable to apply for government assistance.
Still, she said keeping a restaurant going during the pandemic has been tough, with customers often not understanding the struggles of staffing the restaurant to keep up with orders and consistent quality.
Today, Price said the restaurant employs high school students whom she has found are more willing to work. It takes about three months to train a new employee to work independently at the restaurant, according to Price.
“We needed people to work and people didn’t want to work,” she said. “Kids wanted to work, they wanted money and they like it.”
The next steps for Price may include more involvement in local community efforts. She’s currently serving as a board member of her neighborhood association (SOAR), and is also her area’s representative for the Residents’ Empowerment Association of Citrus Heights.
A top concern is mental illness and homelessness. She said her family has been personally affected by mental illness, and she feels the current methods used by law enforcement and community organizations can be improved.
With Taste of Tuscany at the crossroads of Antelope Road and Roseville Road near the railroad tracks, Price also has an opportunity to meet people experiencing homelessness on a daily basis.
As for the restaurant, Price says it’s always been her husband’s dream and she’s happy to support him, but she doesn’t know if their children will want to continue the family business. At 18, her oldest daughter is looking into a career in nursing, while her son is interested in becoming a chef at the restaurant.
In the future, Price said she’d like to open a wine bar featuring an open mic forum where community leaders can hear from other members in the community directly. She hopes an open dialogue among officials developing social programs and the people for whom the programs are designed will improve their efficacy.
She also plans to continue the many things her restaurant is known for, like offering free team parties for local athletic groups. Currently, the restaurant covers the cost of pizza and sodas for the team and the coaches, so parents who can’t afford to pay can participate.
“We do a whole lot of losing money around here,” said Price. “But we do it, and we’re happy.”
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