Diane Symms (right) has been the owner and CEO of Lombardi’s Italian Restaurants for more than three decades. She’s gradually turning the reins over to her daughter, Kerri Lonergan-Dreke (left). (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Diane Symms (right) has been the owner and CEO of Lombardi’s Italian Restaurants for more than three decades. She’s gradually turning the reins over to her daughter, Kerri Lonergan-Dreke (left). (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Founder of Lombardi’s restaurant started with a sandwich shop

Diane Symms plans to retire and let her daughter take the reins at the chain’s three establishments.

EVERETT — The first time Diane Symms tried to take a break from business, it was 2007. The new RV her husband purchased was ready to roll. The road beckoned.

But their first adventure, a three-month trip across the Eastern seaboard, proved “extremely boring,” she said.

Symms is the founder and CEO of Lombardi’s Italian Restaurants, a regional restaurant chain. Stepping back, she concluded, wasn’t her cup of tea.

“I like being busy, making things happen. My outlet for creativity is the restaurant,” said Symms, who co-manages the chain’s three restaurants with her daughter, Kerri Lonergan-Dreke.

The RV served as temporary housing when the Lombardi’s restaurant in Issaquah flooded in 2009 and Symms, a Mukilteo resident, needed to oversee repairs.

“I parked it outside the restaurant and lived in it for three weeks,” Symms said.

Symms recently turned her attention to promoting the first-ever Snohomish County Restaurant Week, a new event that aims to highlight local fare.

“We have a growing population,” Symms said. “Many new people are moving to Snohomish County. These are potential guests that may not know what we have to offer.”

“It’s time we showed off our menu options, vibrant bars and wine lists,” Symms said. The event, sponsored by HeraldMedia, will be held April 19-23 and April 26-30.

Symms and Lonergan-Dreke are both keeping an eye on the Grand Avenue Park pedestrian bridge, near their Everett restaurant at 1620 West Marine View Drive.

“It’s going to be such a neat connection to the waterfront,” Lonergan-Drake said. The bridge, expected to open this summer, will link the park with Everett’s waterfront, including the new Hotel Indigo and, next year, 266 new waterfront apartments.

Being on the water “is always like a little vacation,” Symms said. “The apartments and hotel will give people another reason to come down here. The more reasons, the better,” she said.

In 2010, Symms again considered stepping back. She had sold the first Lombardi’s restaurant, a fixture in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood since 1987. Her plan was to retire and turn the reins over to her daughter, Lonergan-Dreke.

“It seemed like the right time to scale back, to generate some flow for (Mom’s) retirement,” Lonergan-Dreke told The Daily Herald in 2012.

But then an opportunity arose to open another Lombardi’s in Snohomish County.

Diane Symms, owner and CEO of Lombardi’s Italian Restaurants, inspects the kitchen at the Everett location. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Diane Symms, owner and CEO of Lombardi’s Italian Restaurants, inspects the kitchen at the Everett location. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Mother and daughter purchased property on the Bothell-Everett Highway that would become the Lombardi’s Restaurant near Mill Creek.

“Being our own landlords gives us total control over what to do with the space,” Symms said. “You have a lot of control over the overhead factors of operating a restaurant.”

Symms and her daughter have both been outspoken or politically active in the community. Lonergan-Dreke served a term on the Lynnwood City Council from 2010 to 2014 and now serves on the boards of HopeWorks and the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau.

“We’re all active in politics because as business owners we have to be,” Lonergan-Dreke said.

Symms pushed the Snohomish County Council to work on anti-clustering measures after marijuana stores opened on either side of her restaurant on the Bothell-Everett Highway, south of Mill Creek.

Symms’ efforts helped convince the council to enact an ordinance that restricts new marijuana outlets from opening within a half-mile of one another. “We wanted one mile, but that worked,” Symms said.

Their business continues to expand. In October, they opened a third restaurant on the Bellingham waterfront.

“We’re keeping our business going for the third generation — our employees. While they’re not biological family, they’re Lombardi’s family,” Symms said.

Symms can recall when “it was impossible for women to get a business loan without their husband’s signature.”

She opened her first restaurant in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood in the 1970s, a sandwich shop with five wooden picnic tables.

“Even then my friends thought I was crazy for going to work,” Symms said. “But I was divorced with two young kids.”

”The industrial area was perfect,” Symms said. “It was a five-day-a-week operation. I could be home for the kids on weekends.”

“Now 50% of new businesses are owned by women,” Lonergan-Dreke added.

Symms’ advice to new restaurateurs is to stay out of the kitchen once the business is up and running.

“You can’t be growing your business and be doing the day-to-day work. You’ll burn yourself out. You’ll be too tired to see problems arise.”

Symms recently cut her work week to four days. “I plan to take some weekends. I plan to retire. I have picked up playing the piano again. I’m a member of the Mill Creek Design Review Board.”

Retirement, however, probably won’t involve road trips.

“We sold the RV,” Symms said.

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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