Each morning about 6 a.m., Tom Domini heads down Spokane’s South Hill and carries on a restaurant legacy that started in the late 1940s.
Founded as the Stockholm Bar on Howard Street by his father Al and uncle Fred in 1947, the business competed with another set of Domini brothers who ran the New Deal around the corner.
A fire in 1962 at the business next door ended Domini’s tavern. It reopened in 1963 as Domini Sandwiches at 703 W. Sprague Ave. It’s been serving sandwiches large enough to fill a lion ever since.
“Everybody has a story to tell,” Tom “Tommy” Domini said. “Sometimes people come in and recall their first date here 20 years ago.
“You have generations of families that come in. It’s heartwarming. It’s fun. Not a lot of businesses get to see that.”
Nowhere in the restaurant’s success story is the word “re-invention” or “new.” The joint has stuck to the same formula – bread baked daily, fresh meats sliced on order; look for salads elsewhere – that has sustained it from the beginning.
“The success is the people who worked there,” said brother Joe Domini, 75, who retired from the restaurant in 2013. “Being personable and friendly and dedicated to the work and the quality of the product. The high standards for the meets and cheeses.
“It’s hard work,” he continued. “There is a lot of pride in that kind of work. You want to make everybody a good sandwich.”
And the sandwiches are huge. The “whole” will stretch any stomach, and the “small” is anything but. They are served with popcorn, a napkin and a bag, which up until COVID, sported orange-and-white stripes.
Joe Domini said he remembered once when Seattle SuperSonics’ Jack Sikma walked in and ordered a sandwich.
“I recognized him right away,” he said. “The next day, he comes in with six other guys.”
The Domini factor: once you find it, you never lose it.
When the Spokane Indians were the farm team for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the now late-Tommy Lasorda visited often to order salami sandwiches.
Actors, the University of Washington marching band for the Apple Cup, crowds for Lilac Parades and Hoopfests all patronized the establishment.
“The biggest order we did was 2,000 sandwiches,” Joe Domini said. “It was nuts.”
‘The longevity tells the tale’
Tom Domini worked the restaurant with his father for years. Sister, Nancy (Beatty), also worked behind the counter.
Up until the early 1970s, the restaurant was technically considered a tavern.
“I went to work for my father before my senior year of high school,” Tom Domini said. “I wasn’t supposed to ring up alcohol on the register. But you had to fool them a little.”
In 1974, just in time for Expo, the Domini Sandwiches license was changed to allow families and minors to come inside.
Joseph Domini took a different path. He attended Eastern Washington University and earned a degree in psychology in 1970.
He parlayed that into a job in Seattle that kept him on the West Side until 1992. He then returned to run the cash register at the restaurant, with an uncanny ability to remember customers’ names.
“It was always supposed to be temporary,” Joe said of his return.
But he just fell into the routine.
“I always remembered your name if I could remember what you had for lunch,” Joe Domini said. “Unless you changed your mind, you got what you had the last time.”
He retired from the sandwich shop in 2013 and moved to a new home north of Phoenix to be near some of his grandchildren. Now, he spends his time traveling and playing tennis five days a week.
“I bought my first house in Seattle. That paid for the house in Spokane, and the house in Spokane paid for the house in Arizona,” he said. “I haven’t had a house payment for a very long time.”
When Joe Domini stepped down, they called on another family member, Bobby Bruce, to step in.
Bruce is a first cousin to the Domini family.
Bruce’s mother was Rosalee Mastro. Her sisters were Lena and Barbara Mastro. Lena Mastro married Al Domini, and Barbara Mastro married Fred Domini, so two Mastro sisters married the founding Domini brothers of the original tavern.
“I’m only half Italian. But I thought I was full Italian because all I had four relatives that were Dominis,” Bruce said.
He said the old family was tight.
“If you’ve ever watched the movie ‘Goodfellas,’ all the adult Italians are living next door and doing everything together, birthdays and vacations,” he said. “All the (Domini) cousins were like brothers and sisters.
“Those were the only friends we had, and we did everything with them.”
In 2013, Bruce hit some hard times.
“Then lo and behold, when I really needed it, Tommy pulled through and helped me out” with a job, Bruce said. “I’ll never forget him for that.
“I got to be in a place where I was loved and respected. It didn’t even seem like I was there a year,” he said. “It went by so fast.”
Bruce, 69, retired from the restaurant in 2020 during the COVID pandemic.
The sandwich shop remains a vital business because the Dominis never messed up what worked, Bruce said.
“It’s kind of like the success of Henry Ford. He had the right-priced car,” Bruce said. “And he gave a good value to the people. Nobody had a sandwich like that. It’s so basic and simple, and you can get people in and out very fast.”
And customers felt welcome whenever they needed to consume a meat bomb.
“Tommy loves his customers,” Bruce said. “They are not just glad to see him, they are excited to see him. I think the longevity tells the tale.”
Slicing into the future
While COVID hit the restaurant hard, it’s the commodity prices following the pandemic that have forced difficult decisions and price hikes for the sandwiches.
Tom Domini readily acknowledges that he’s looking for an exit ramp, but he’s not ready to fully detail what that will look like. At 66, he’s already a year older than Joe was when he stepped away in 2013.
But Judy Domini hopes that her husband can finally travel for music and perhaps take another trip back to Italy.
She noted that one side effect of COVID was that the restaurant shortened its hours. It’s now only open from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. That’s two hours shorter than when Joe was still working at the restaurant.
Those changes were a “blessing in disguise,” Judy Domini said.
“Tom put all those hours in all his life. You have to really love it. Tom really loves it,” Judy Domini said. “But he realized he doesn’t have to put 60 or 80 hours in a week. Now he’s home at 3 or 3:30. Life is great.”
Judy Domini just started her 44th year as a checker for Safeway. Their daughter, Tori, is a 27-year-old X-ray technician, and their 31-year-old son, Perry, works for 4 Degrees Real Estate.
So, the family lineage in the restaurant appears to be nearing its end.
“The next person … he is going to shadow them for six or seven months,” Judy Domini said. “He doesn’t want anything to change.”
The secret is finding a winning combination and having the courage to persevere, Tom Domini said.
“It’s never changed since Day 1. It’s the same sized sandwich, the same bread,” he said. “People know what they are going to get every time they come in.
“How can you change something when it’s been going 60 years and still making money?”
An earlier version of this story misstated the Mastro sisters’ marriage arrangement.