Steven E.F. Brown
May 7, 2014
San Francisco Business Times

It may seem a bit quixotic that a business based on the water is flourishing during a drought, but Oakland’s Gondola Servizio has gotten a big boost from dry weather.

The business, owned by April Quinn and her husband Angelino Sandri, operates two Venetian gondolas and a similar craft called a sandolo on Lake Merritt.

Dry weather has boosted their business to an average of 48 cruises a week, said Quinn, calling it “a great winter.” Sandri, who came to the United States from Venice at Christmas time 1998, remembers wet winters where rain kept customers away and he did just nine or 10 trips in a week, or sometimes only one.

While Sandri and three other trained gondoliers row the boats on the lake, Quinn operates a retail shop inside the boathouse that also houses popular restaurant Lake Chalet.

She calls the little shop, which sells novel items such as glassware and masks imported from Venice and also local products including Oaklandish T-shirts, “an extra special add on” to the gondola business.

Gondola Servizio pays a portion of its gross receipts to the City of Oakland as a concessionaire using boathouse space, a similar arrangement to Lake Chalet.

The company can’t expand as quickly in busy times as other businesses, though. Hiring new gondoliers ain’t easy in the Bay Area, where Quinn and Sandri’s boats are the only craft of that type around — they were shipped across the ocean from Venice. So over the years Sandri has trained aspiring gondoliers himself, though that takes a lot of time, even if the candidates are from Italy, as a few are.

One gondolier Sandri trained was “seeking peace from his crazy job” in a local Italian restaurant. Rowing on the lake was a big change for the man, a Florentine, with a lot less shouting.

Many locals have also expressed interest, and a few have made it through the difficult training. But one big hurdle would-be gondoliers have to overcome is singing. “Gondoliers must be able or willing to sing as well,” Quinn said. “We lose a lot of people with this. You can’t just be only interested in boating.”

Sandri, who works a different job as a salesman for Vinity Wine Co., an Italian importer, five days a week, is hopeful that he’ll eventually have enough trained gondoliers that he can have a Sunday off. He’s training one new rower now who already has a bit of skill, having done some similar rowing in San Diego.

But though he dreams of a lazy Sunday, even during our interview on a sunny Sunday afternoon he was interrupted by a walk-in customer who signed up for a cruise after five o’clock — every earlier time slot was already booked.

Sandri works so many hours that he was even at the boathouse late at night just before Thanksgiving, when one of the winter’s few storms toppled an enormous eucalyptus tree out front of the building. Had it fallen the other way, the boathouse would’ve been destroyed. As it was, the three-foot waves blown up by that storm bent the dock used by the gondolas, leaving it a bit crooked even today.

And there could be more work ahead, with slim chances of any lazy Sundays, if Gondola Servizio wins a contract to operate on the river in downtown Napa. The City of Napa recently gained back jurisdiction of the river after eight years of construction. Quinn is interested in the possibility of gondola cruises in a very different location, dominated by tourists rather than locals, as in Oakland.

Napa hasn’t yet started a review of potential candidates, she said, so she and her husband can at least dream of a bit of time off before then. And they might not win the contract.

“We come highly recommended, however,” she said.

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