Kerri Lonergan-Dreke (left) and her mother, Diane Symms, of Lombardi’s Restaurants. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Kerri Lonergan-Dreke (left) and her mother, Diane Symms, of Lombardi’s Restaurants. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Frustrated restaurateur reflects on transformative pandemic

Lombardi’s owner Kerri Lonergan-Dreke is unhappy with government but is coping with the changes COVID brought.

Lombardi’s Restaurants owner Kerri Lonergan-Dreke is part of a vocal group of restaurateurs who had been lobbying Olympia to re-open indoor dining that had been shut down by executive order of the governor for most of the past few months. Starting this week, Gov. Jay Inslee eased those restrictions, allowing up to 25% capacity for indoor seating.

It’s not nearly enough for Lonergan-Dreke.

She’s frustrated with the state’s management of the COVID-19 crisis and sees it as a direct attack on families and smaller operators.

“Aside from the large number of small business owners and their employees forced into financial ruin from COVID shutdowns,” she explains, “the bigger concern is the growing gap between the middle class of businesses in America and the exponential influence of big businesses.”

It’s an emotional issue for her and for many other restaurant owners: “Under Gov. Inslee’s ‘edicts,’ corporate America is thriving while small businesses are dying,” she says.

Macro trends already in play were accelerated by the pandemic, Lonergan-Dreke explains, forcing operators to reach deep into internal operations but also out to the real estate industry as it struggles to make physical adjustments to accommodate necessary changes. “The demand for takeout is here to stay, especially for quick service and casual concepts,” she notes.

Making these adjustments at the same time most restaurants and their landlords have been operating with limited revenue is the challenge.

Trends like a smaller physical footprint and designated areas for takeout and delivery pickup are now necessities. She also anticipates restaurant design will need to incorporate more space between tables for increased guest comfort.

“Bay doors and windows that open to the fresh outside air will become critical design elements to improve indoor air circulation year-round,” Lonergan-Dreke says.

The restaurant business is in Lonergan-Dreke’s blood, so she’s not about to give up her fight with Olympia to fully open up as soon as possible. Her mother, Diane Symms, founded Lombardi’s, so Lonergan-Dreke grew up in a business that for her is about much more than a bottom line.

“The most rewarding aspect of being a restaurant owner is taking part in the positive upbeat vibe of a crowded restaurant, building long-term relationships with loyal guests and within the community, and taking part in the development of staff teams,” Lonergan-Dreke says. She smiles, adding, “Eating delicious Italian food on a regular basis is a nice perk, too.”

Tom Hoban

Tom Hoban

Lonergan-Dreke thinks restaurants will have a particularly important role as we come out of government restrictions.

“During the first shutdown, I was struck with how many of our laid-off staff told me how happy they were to be back at work,” she says. “After the first week or two during the stay-at-home order, many people realized how their sense of purpose had been diminished without a connection to their co-workers, family and community. I’m hopeful that society at large will continue to prioritize spending quality time with family and friends in restaurants. There’s a core human need to connect and it’s particularly strong after prolonged isolation like we’ve experienced.”

Occasional contributor Tom Hoban is chairman and co-founder of Hoban Family Office, a real estate investment and services enterprise in Everett.

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