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The secret ingredients behind Chicken Lou’s

The line has been forming for 28 years. It includes Northeastern students, faculty, and staff. They find themselves being pulled in through the side door of Chicken Lou’s as if by an olfactory tractor beam.

“Has everybody ordered yet?” shouts proprietor Dave Ferretti as the lunch crowd wades through the trailer-sized restaurant that his father opened in 1990.

“I’ll have the Whitey BoLOUger,” says a student.

Ferretti calls out the order to his daughter and her boyfriend, who begin assembling chicken cutlets and Italian sausage covered in provolone and marinara on a toasted sub roll. While they work over the hot flat grill and the two deep fryers, Ferretti likes to engage with the customers, in part to distract them from the wait.

“You’re wearing appropriate pants for that sandwich,” he says. The pants are black, which may hide evidence of the inevitable spills.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Whether you’re lining up for breakfast, lunch, or dinner—Ferretti sees familiar faces returning for all three meals on the same day, plus snacks in between—the influence of Chicken Lou’s is powerful and satisfying. An unsubtle bouquet of poultry, meats, cheese, seafood, potatoes, eggs, and grease radiates from its back kitchen like the warm, soothing light to which we are all supposedly drawn at the end of our lives—an outcome that seems particularly apt while wolfing down the infamous Cholesterol breakfast sandwich (bacon, egg, and cheese) or the lunchtime Egg Foo Lou (a sub roll loaded with fried chicken cutlets, scrambled eggs, peppers, mushrooms, and duck sauce).

“I’ve been coming here for 25 years, two times a week,” says Bill Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern. In this dog-eat-dog world of fast-food options, he says, Chicken Lou’s stands apart. “It always strikes me as better made, with fresher ingredients,” says Mayer in between bites of his #1, a fried chicken breast fillet with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise on a bulkie roll.

The #1 has been the signature sandwich since Dave’s father, Lou Ferretti, opened Chicken Lou’s on Forsythe Street near Huntington Avenue during the George H.W. Bush administration. “He had an accounting degree and his mother was mortified that he started hot dog carts, but hot dog carts were making money for him,” Dave says. “He was known then as Hot Dog Louie, and his motto was, “A loaf of bread, a pound of meat, and all the mustard you could eat—Hot Dog Louie.’”

Dave graduated from Northeastern in 1982 with a degree in electrical engineering. His dream was to work for NASA. “They put a freeze on hiring,” he recalls, and so he spent the next 13 years at Raytheon, the Waltham, Massachusetts-based defense contractor. He gave up that career to take over Chicken Lou’s, liberating his father to retire in Florida. “That lasted for two months,” Dave says. “He didn’t have fun. His family was up here.”

Lou Ferretti returned home to spend his last five years working in the restaurant. He died at age 74 in 2000. “I lost my best friend,” says Dave.

At least three of Lou’s children, seven of his grandchildren, and assorted other family members have extended Lou’s vision into the new millennium. By 5:30 a.m. Monday through Friday (and a little bit later on Saturday mornings), Dave, daughter Amberle, and her boyfriend Sherwood “DJ” Avery are leaving their house in Merrimack, New Hampshire, in order to open at 6:45. After 2 p.m. Dave is driving back home—replaced by the evening shift headed by his daughter Gerry—while forcing Amberle and DJ to endure his addiction to sports talk radio. “It is nice to be surrounded by family, and it’s nice to keep the business going,” says Amberle, in between sarcastic jokes about her father. “Everything is made with love.”

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Their togetherness turns Chicken Lou’s into a well-oiled machine, so to speak. Some 400 to 500 customers are served daily during the academic year. “The secret is working with people that have a clue,” says Dave, while he constantly cleans his glasses with the hem of his blue Cheech & Chong T-shirt. “That’s why it’s a lot easier to have family, as opposed to people coming and going. We don’t have any ordering system, and it works because these guys remember.”

Dave, who isn’t so good with names, tends to associate customers with their favorite orders. “Every time I call, he knows my voice,” says Shawn Occeus, a junior guard on Northeastern’s basketball team, which routinely calls ahead to place group orders before embarking on road trips.

“I used to think the football players ate more than the basketball players,” Dave says. “But it’s just not true.” Men’s basketball coach Bill Coen ought to appreciate hearing that.

J.J. Barea, the former Husky who won an NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, is among the many graduates who return to Chicken Lou’s to renew old cravings. It is pleasing to find that so little has changed. The menu continues to grow, based on suggestions from customers, but the restaurant itself is the same—the doors that stay open for ventilation, the shiny white ceiling fitted with fluorescent lighting, the glass-doored coolers that line the wall to your left, and the voice of Dave Ferretti’s that has grown to sound so much like his father’s.

Dave’s favorite sandwiches are the Hectic Lou (shaved steak, American cheese, bacon, peppers, and onions, topped with spicy sauce and honey mustard) and the Southwestern TKO (baked chicken, melted pepperjack, bacon, and chipotle ranch).

“But I’m 59 years old,” he says. “I don’t eat a lot here anymore. I’d be fat as a house if I did.”