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Domini Sandwiches losing a familiar face

First things first: Domini Sandwiches, home of the largest small in town, is not closing.

But Joe Domini, the familiar face behind the cramped front counter, is retiring. Many familiar faces at this Spokane institution will remain, including Joe’s brother Tom, but Joe is off for Arizona after more than two decades of taking orders, making change and remembering “the usual” for countless regulars.

“Seventy-five percent of the people know what they want” when they walk in, Joe said Monday. “They know we don’t have vegetables.”

Joe has his own usual, of course: turkey, sweet hot mustard, Dijon, no cheese. “I probably eat that every day,” he said.

Not for long. Joe’s final day at the Domini’s counter will be May 31, and then he’s moving to warmer climes to be near kids and grandkids. In the meantime, he’s training his replacement, Bobby Bruce. Bruce, fittingly for a place that leans heavily on family and loyalty, is a cousin of the Domini brothers.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce said, “but I’m only half Italian.”

Domini’s just celebrated its 50th anniversary as a sandwich shop. For 22 of those years, Joe Domini has been the face behind the counter – a genial if no-nonsense presence taking down orders by hand, making change and informing the uninitiated that there are no sprouts or avocado slices available for the mountainwiches. For many of us, the massive New York-style deli sandwiches – the comically huge “smalls,” the even larger “wholes,” and the recently added “tiny” sandwiches – are a lunch staple.

And that means running into Joe is, as well.

Joe Domini grew up the child of downtown business owners. His father, Al, and Uncle Fred ran a downtown tavern not far from a tavern run by two of his other uncles. He remembers watching movies at the Orpheum while his dad worked at the tavern and riding home together. After the tavern burned down in 1962, Domini’s reopened with a focus on sandwiches at its current location on West Sprague. Joe remembers hauling those sandwiches to lunch at Gonzaga Prep, a meal that towered over the PB&Js.

He studied psychology at Eastern Washington University, graduating in 1970. He gave some thought to sticking with the family business, but he was infected with the get-out-of-town bug.

“I was thinking more about leaving Spokane,” he said. “I wanted to get out and see what I could explore.”

He worked for two decades as a social worker in the King County court system, living in West Seattle in a home formerly owned by fish-and-chips king Ivar Haglund. Eventually, though, the congestion and rising costs drove him out, and he returned to Spokane in 1991. After years of working with dangerously troubled clients in Seattle, the sandwich business offered some perks.

“Nobody’s shooting at you, nobody’s stabbing you with a knife,” he said. “That’s the upside.”

He and Tom divide duties relatively cleanly and informally. “He likes doing the sandwiches, I like doing the front end,” Joe said.

Tom is nine years younger than the 65-year-old Joe, a little stouter, a little less gray. He will continue as the sole owner.

“I like the people,” he said. “I like the atmosphere. I like to know what’s going on in town. I like to know what’s happening.”

In the restaurant’s half-century of business, it has compiled a roster of notable customers and a far-flung reputation. Back in the glory days of Triple-A baseball, Tommy Lasorda was a regular, coming in for the salami sandwiches. Joe remembers when the University of Washington marching band would order bags of sandwiches on its way down to Pullman for the Apple Cup. In recent years, they’ve seen the actor Cuba Gooding Jr. – who has been a splashy local presence while filming movies here – on more than one occasion.

On Monday, even as we were discussing the various famous folks who’ve dropped in, Tim Eyman, Washington’s initiative-meister, was mounting an assault on a roast beef and cheddar, extra mayo, in a back booth.

“You meet people from every kind of whatever,” Tom said.

Joe added, “From all over the world.”

On Monday, Joe Domini was at his station and awaiting the lunch crowd as the noon hour drew near. The meat and cheese slicers – there are four of them – were buzzing, and the loaves of fresh bread sat waiting on the shelves. The popcorn machine yawned, a tidy row of orange and white striped Domini bags filled and awaiting their foil-wrapped sandwiches. The employees – waitresses and sandwich makers with years and years on the job, as familiar to the regulars as the brothers themselves – bantered and did what needed doing, whether it was polishing the metal popcorn bowls or delivering sandwiches to booths and tables.

A couple came in. “Hey, guys – have a seat anywhere,” Joe said, and then he greeted the next man through the door: “Mr. Jim. Your usual thing?”

Mr. Jim – Jim Brockett, chief information officer at Washington Trust Bank – said yes, indeed, he would have his usual thing: turkey and pepper jack on sourdough.

A customer came up to pay: “Hi, Joe, how are ya? I hear you’re leaving.”

The crowd thickened. One customer placed her order with Bruce, the cousin in training for Joe’s spot. She looked at him, assessing, and said, “You’re new, aren’t you?”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.