Pino and Lani Sordello, owners of mom-and-pop business Via Rosa 11, treat their workers like family. How else to keep these valued employees, who cannot afford the island’s high-priced housing, driving in from distant towns?
“I think Bainbridge is the Garden of Eden,” said Lani Sordello, reflecting on the island’s exceptional schools, natural beauty, and everything it offers so that people might “ascribe to the American dream of getting ahead.” Lani is Hawaiian. She knows paradise. And after retiring from a 23-year career at Starbucks, most recently as vice president of global beverage product development, she knows privilege. But she’s not looking to keep either paradise or privilege to herself. “Everyone deserves a good quality of life,” she said. “Not just those of us who can afford it.”
Lani moved to Washington when her father, who was in the air force, was stationed at what is today Joint Base Lewis–McChord. To put herself through the University of Washington, she worked hotel and restaurant jobs, jobs that her family members who remained in Hawaii and who did not have her opportunity still work today.
Last year, Lani joined her husband Pino in running the family business, Via Rosa 11, the beloved Italian eatery in Rolling Bay. Pino is a convivial host and an intuitive cook, his recipes and technique inspired by his mother and his hometown of 200 along Italy’s Ligurian coast. But he and Lani credit the devotion and skill of the staff for much of their business success, and they do everything they can to hold on to these valued workers. Pino has always paid above minimum wage (20% higher than the industry standard). Even during a year complicated by Covid, staff received a two-dollar raise and a bonus, along with the customary shared tip pool, paid vacation, and annual reviews (never mind the occasional loan).
In sharing these details, the Sordellos are not being self-congratulatory. These policies are acts of genuine appreciation—and necessity. There are 13 employees at Via Rosa. Only four, all high school students at home with their parents, live on the island. The others commute by car and at great expense, in the absence of adequate public transportation, from towns scattered across Kitsap County and as far away as Port Orchard. How else can the Sordellos make that commute worthwhile? How else can they keep their employees driving in day after day, meal after meal, some for as long as six years and some days braving “an ice and snowstorm to open and work that double shift”?
“If there was enough affordable housing on the island so that our employees could live here, then that would be one less hassle for them,” said Lani. But it is more than convenience she wants for her workers, but peace of mind, which as a mother she knows can be elusive when parents work far from their children. Beyond personal compassion, but from a business owner’s perspective, Lani says that affordable housing would mean a deeper candidate pool and greater ease in attracting and retaining talent.
The majority of the staff are people of color. That is not happenstance but by design. The Italian-born Pino who arrived in the US alone at the age of 26 relates to the immigrant community. The jobs at Via Rosa often pass from uncles to nephews, from brothers to sisters, in particular in the Latino community.
Pino and Lani would like their employees to feel a connection to the Bainbridge community. One worker in particular, a veteran of six years who has earned his customers’ affection, comes to mind. “He works so hard and is so proud of the work he does,” said Lani. “What if you were able to not only have that pride—‘Hey, I work here, I work with this team, this is my work’—but also ‘I live in this community, these are my customers, I see them when I go to the grocery store’?” Instead, at the end of a long day at Via Rosa, sometimes followed by a second shift at another local establishment, these workers return home, often to communities that do not have the opportunity and abundance of Bainbridge. “That juxtaposition is not healthy, nor is it motivating,” Lani has observed.
Lani believes that a commitment to affordable housing sends the message that “all are welcome,” a value that she espouses and attributes to her Hawaiian heritage and one that she and Pino practice in their business. “We want Bainbridge to look like the rest of America and in order to do it, people who work here should be able to afford to live here.” Toward that end, she and Pino are investing in the work of HRB.