By Karen Robinson-Jacobs
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The daughters of famed restaurateur Alberto Lombardi share their journeys into the restaurant industry and how they plan on increasing their profile within the comapny founded by their father.
The Dallas Morning News
In the 1970s and ’80s, when noted restaurateur Alberto Lombardi was growing a restaurant empire that would stretch nearly from coast to coast, he also was growing a family.
Today, his three daughters, his oldest children from his first marriage, are taking on increased responsibility in what’s now called Lombardi Family Concepts.
Despite growing up in a male-dominated industry that is among those hit by allegations of sexual harassment, the three say they’re comfortable in the space.
While there’s no question that the 69-year-old Lombardi remains the boss, they see opportunities for women increasing both within their company and in the broader industry that one sister said is “in our blood.”
They are aware of the advantages they have enjoyed.
“I think being his daughter helped open the door,” said Anna Lombardi Daigle, 41, and the oldest Lombardi offspring. “It may be nepotism, but it’s true.”
The family’s current focus is on opening two more restaurants — one’s already open — in the still-evolving Legacy West development in Plano. The family gathered recently at another Legacy West restaurant to talk about what’s next for the company and the family.
Lombardi’s is the only company with three concepts in the project, according to developer Fehmi Karahan, who said he was drawn by the strength of the Lombardi brand and the chops of the maestro.
It made “a difference on my decision and gave additional comfort in signing three leases with Lombardi Concepts knowing that second generation is very engaged in the family business, as they bring the fresh ideas, new energy and carry on the banner,” Karahan said.
Dallas-based Lombardi’s operates 17 restaurants with 775 employees and seven brand names. Three of those names — Italian-themed Taverna, French-inspired Toulouse and the newest offspring Kai, a southern Asia concept with an open wok kitchen — will add to the mix at Legacy West.
Taverna opened in November. Toulouse tentatively is set to open at the end of January, followed in late February by Kai, the company’s first Japanese-flavored concept which will frequently have live music.
How they started
Each daughter worked a non-Lombardi job before returning to the family business.
After graduating from the University of San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a minor in Italian, Anna became a buyer in New York City for upscale food retailer Dean & DeLuca.
Then came the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which helped her “put some things in perspective” especially about the importance of family. “Dad said, ‘I could use you'” to help run things in Texas.
“When I moved back from New York City and started working for my father at Penne Pomodoro at Snider Plaza, I thought the concept was fantastic and decided to apply for an SBA loan” to open another location, she said. “I saw an opportunity in front of me with Penne.”
“My father loaned me, with interest, the 20 percent I needed to put down in order to get the [$250,000] loan. I opened Penne Pomodoro at Preston and Forest Nov. 3, 2003,” she said.
The daughter who once envisioned herself as a pediatric surgeon found that “2003 was a great time to be a woman entrepreneur.”
Since then, the number of female restaurant owners has continued to increase, with the National Restaurant Association estimating in 2011 that nearly 50 percent of restaurants were owned by women.
“I think me and my sisters being in leadership roles at my father’s company is a testament” to gender improvements in the industry, said Laura Lombardi McDonell, 39.
She had dreamed of becoming an event planner. Her dad just wanted her to get a job.
At 22, she got her chance to help plan events at the Dallas Business Journal while also working in circulation, a gig that lasted about two years. Laura started working full time for her dad in 2003, helping with events at the now-shuttered Lombardi Mare seafood restaurant near the Dallas North Tollway.
The first paid job for Sarah Lombardi Santos, 34, was at a local Uncle Julio’s. She was 16 and served as a hostess.
She also joined the family business in about 2003, waiting tables at the Penne in Snider Plaza. Since then she has “hopped around wherever they needed help.”
Lombardi also has a 13-year old son, Luca, with wife Vivian.
In between the births of Anna and Laura, in 1977, Alberto Lombardi launched the first of what eventually would number more than 30 restaurants.
Anna now owns two Penne locations, including one in Lakewood, and is helping “bring us into the digital age,” her dad said, by shepherding the website and handling social media for the company.
Laura serves as marketing director and Sarah is the menu coordinator for all of the concepts and special events.
“I have worked beside my father with the creation and opening process for many years,” said Sarah.
All three sisters invested in some of the restaurants.
None of the women reported experiencing any of the inappropriate behavior that has been alleged against some marquee names in the industry including celebrity chef John Besh in New Orleans and Mario Batali.
Laura recalls patrons at the Penne Pomodoro in Snider Plaza would “dismiss me as a host [as] they looked for a male manager.”
But she feels thankful that the three avoided the most egregious treatment.
“I never feel disrespected by my co-workers or anyone I work with,” said Anna. “I don’t feel like I’m not listened to. Maybe it’s because we’re Alberto Lombardi’s daughters.”
Albert Lombardi recalled his entry-level days as a restaurant worker, adding that he has no tolerance for bad behavior.
“I grew up as a busboy and waiter,” he said. “I know what it feels like when somebody is mistreated.”
The biggest challenge said the three — mothers all — is navigating a schedule in which the restaurants are busiest on nights and weekends.
“This is the main reason you find more men than women in this business,” at the management ranks, said Laura.
“I’m a good mom, I work, I accomplish something,” said Sarah, mom to an energetic 2-year-old and stepmom to a tween. “I feel good about myself. I can give more of myself to my kids.
Still, she said, “coming back after you have kids is an adjustment.”
While the daughters are taking on more responsibility, if there’s ever a difference of opinion, everyone knows who’s going to make the final decision.
All eyes and fingers pointed to Lombardi who was seated, not coincidentally, at the head of the table.
“With me it’s very easy,” Lombardi joked, “when something is wrong, I scream. When you have a problem, you have to find a solution.”
Challenge and comfort
Laura sees her dad as a good boss who’s also “inspirational,” with a passion for the business.
Lombardi is coy about whether he ever plans to step down, or even slow down.
“If you love to do something, it’s not work,” he said, the sound of his native Forli, Italy, still resounding in his voice. “This is very important.”
But having his daughters around adds a layer of comfort.
“Having them in the office,” he said, “they can keep an eye out.”
Hattie Hill is president and chief executive of the Women’s Foodservice Forum, a Dallas-based organization that looks to advance women in an industry where most of the senior management positions traditionally have been held by men.
In “legacy” businesses, started by one generation and welcoming the next, women in the second generation can face a number of challenges, including “creating their own identity,” Hill said. “That’s a big one.”
Also, she said, “women still are challenged with being taken seriously.”
“The daughters really have to create their own space and leadership style,” Hill said. ” It’s harder sometimes to be your own person. It can be great because you have this famous name and very successful name. But also now as leaders, you have to go make a name for yourself.”
The Lombardi family has locations in four states and in Mexico but still counts North Texas as its largest market. Here are the current and coming-soon locations:
Bistro 31 / Lounge 31 — Highland Park Village
Taverna –Legacy West in Plano, Knox/Henderson, Fort Worth
Penne Pomodoro — Lakewood, Snider Plaza, Preston & Forest;
Toulouse — Knox Street/Katy Trail, coming to Legacy West
Kai — Coming soon to Legacy West
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