As they say, “there’s nothing like mama’s cooking”, and Guy Lombardi knows this first hand. Growing up in Avellino, Italy, Guy was spoiled by his mother’s traditional Italian cooking. At a young age he was exposed to all aspects of the kitchen, helping his mother as much as he could, igniting the passion that has led to the Lombardi Empire that stands today.
Mamma Lombardi’s Restaurant opened in 1976 in Holbrook, NY. This was the first business venture of Guy and the Lombardi family, with the intention to showcase their mamma’s recipes. The restaurant was well received and prompted the family opened four more locations, Villa Lombardi’s and Lombardi’s Gourmet Market in Holbrook, Lombardi’s On The Sound in Port Jefferson, NY and Lombardi’s On The Bay in Patchogue, NY, all showcasing the generous portions and robust flavors in their cuisine, featuring superb service. Guy and the Lombardi family believe the cornerstone of their success is their customers, and follow their company mission statement, “our reputation, built on total customer satisfaction, is our basis for existence”, in all they do.
What created your interest in cooking?
Coming from a small village in Italy, my mother spent most of her day in the kitchen, cooking for us and for the farm. When we immigrated to America in 1968, she still cooked the same large meals she cooked for our neighbors and friends, using the same recipes from our village in Avellino. It’s the original farm-to-table idea. It’s definitely rustic Italian cooking.
They literally grew the food and ate it. It’s a lot of vegetables, signature dishes from the local ingredients. They didn’t really have anything to work with besides what they could grow in that area. There really weren’t any other choices.
When my family came here – I was one of eight – we all got different jobs. But obviously we had a passion for food because my two brothers, John and Jerry were working in a pizzeria and I actually became a butcher in a pork store. And then one day, when we were sitting at the table eating dinner, we came up with the idea to open our own restaurant, using my mother’s cooking.
What’s the niche that Lombardi’s fills?
It’s really farm-to-table. Simple ingredients perfectly balanced. We serve the same food at our wedding banquet halls that we do in our restaurant. People know the quality they can expect when they come to us in any of our venues.
Talk about what makes Lombardi’s special?
It’s all about family, and history. We run Mamma Lombardi’s the same way we did when we opened our first restaurant 35 years ago. Our food is always fresh. We put the customer first.
People literally waited two to three hours for a table when we first opened. People from another town would say, “We need a Lombardi’s in this town.” And our customers haven’t really changed.
Now we see more and more of the same customers but just different generations of them. We make sure that our customers can honestly trust that we are providing the very best for them.”
How did a single restaurant turn into multiple operations?
We just grew. People wanted us to open up in their towns! The catering and bridal operation was something I saw as a real growth opportunity – we already had the great food! – And I didn’t think it would be that much different to open a catering business.
It just grew and grew. Mamma Lombardi’s Restaurant opened in 1976 in Holbrook, then we added Villa Lombardi’s and Lombardi’s Gourmet Market in Holbrook, and then Lombardi’s On The Sound in Port Jefferson, and the catering operation in Patchogue, Lombardi’s On The Bay.
How have the needs of your customers evolved over the 35 plus years you’ve been open?
Our customers haven’t really changed. Now we see more and more of the same customers but just different generations of them. We make sure that our customers can honestly trust that we are providing the very best for them.
Do you market the restaurant with any print or radio advertising?
Our customers aren’t really responding to the print ads in our local newspapers so we’ve hired someone who has more of a grasp on the social media side. We’re updating all our Facebook pages and all our social media accounts. We also do things with The Knot, a big wedding magazine. But basically it’s social media because we have three different locations for just the wedding venues and word of mouth is best.
How has the role of the review and now social media impacted your approach?
Word of mouth is best and that’s what we get from social media and online reviews. The review is really in the hands of our everyday customers now. They are our advertisers. The importance of customer service and relations has never been higher.
What’s your approach to your food and beverage vendors? Do you go to bid every week? And who are your primary vendors?
We have a lot of great local vendors, such as Bar-Boy Products, J.Kings, Musco MFI, Braun’s Seafood, and Casino Clams Fish Market. We’re basically working with the same ones we started the restaurant with 40 years ago.
And yes, we go to bid every week. Our approach has always been the same; don’t bring us any products that you wouldn’t use in your own home. In fact, last week somebody sent me tomatoes that simply were not acceptable, so I sent them back.
It’s not often that a chef cooks and operates a restaurant. Talk about your approach and management style.
Very few owners are the chefs, too. For us, it was always normal to be the chef, and to manage the restaurant at the same time. Our approach has always been hands-on, to show the way, and everyone will follow. That’s a standard for us, and also love what you do.
If I’m hearing correctly, you have eight family members all working in the family business..really?
Three brothers and five sisters all work in the business. My sister is the accountant and my brother Jerry is the tech guy. I don’t know if I would even be able to turn on a computer! But he’s in charge of all our IT operations. That’s just one little example. Even though people went into different professions, we all just work together. Everybody has different strengths and different interests. It’s amazing to see it first-hand.
“Mamma Lombardi” is still a big part of our business. She comes in the morning to peel garlic and she loves speaking with customers. She’s 82 years old and still loves coming to the restaurant every day. We’re a family operation! I can’t imagine not having my kids in the business with me. My daughter, Lauren, is the creative director for marketing and she’s the one we go to for social media. She loves to take photographs and she’s working on a cookbook and a certified sommelier.
My son Phillip, is the operations manager for all of the restaurant locations and my nephew, Jerry, is our head chef at our waterfront location. My niece Sophia works with brides and wedding planners and has made a nice success of that business. It was a natural outgrowth of our business.
What’s your view on what it takes for a suburban restaurant to succeed? Do you need customers to come back more than once a week? If so, how do you get them to do so?
You depend on repeat customers. We see the same customer three times a week. We keep them coming back by providing great service, top-notch dishes, and we treat everyone like family. That has also enabled us to transition from one generation to the next as our customers’ kids now bring in their kids.
With such a wide range of needs from a gourmet market to catering, what’s your approach to the design of a kitchen?
The key to our kitchens has been to create a design and purchase equipment that enables us to be flexible. We’ve done that by working with a knowledgeable dealer that is based on Long Island: Bar-Boy Products.
That has enabled us to build kitchens that give us the a la cart consistency we need for our restaurants. At the same time Bar-Boy Products continues to keep us abreast of the changes in technology so that we are able to utilize the latest innovation including convection cooking to produce high quality product to meet the demands of our large volume catering events. Bar-Boy Products also supplies us weekly, with all of our equipment and supply needs such as China, Glassware, Paper Goods and Janitorial Goods.
You’ve also succeeded in the catering business. How does it differ from the restaurant industry?
Certainly the sales and marketing of selling an event like a wedding are very different from running a restaurant every day. From a food standpoint, there’s not much difference. You buy quality, fresh food and you cook and serve it well.
Crystal ball, what lies ahead?
It’s definitely gotten a lot harder in this business, with these standards, between the health care and increase in the minimum wage and everything. We just have to adjust and adapt, go along with the changes. Get creative with making our customers happy and providing the best service we can.