The hand-drawn sign taped within the locked glass door of Chicken Lou’s read like the beginning to a goodbye letter:
We are closed for winter break
See you in 2020!
It’s as though the bird’s own beak were encouraging you: Buck up! We’ll be back! But perhaps you know what is coming.
Northeastern’s original fast-food shack will soon be no more.
“We’re going to be open through April 30, which will coincide with the end of the term,” says Dave Ferretti, the second-generation owner of Chicken Lou’s. “It’s been a fun thing. It still is a fun thing, but it’s also not an easy job.
“So now it’s just time.”
Chicken Lou’s will be 30 years old when its final chicken parm has been fried, smothered, wrapped, and sent out the door by Ferretti’s assembly line of blood relatives. His father, Lou Ferretti, who at one time was known as Hot Dog Louie (A loaf of bread, a pound of meat, and all the mustard you could eat—Hot Dog Louie), established the rectangular, shoe-boxy storefront on Forsythe Street in 1990, which was five U.S. (and three Northeastern) presidents ago.
The place remains smaller than the typical diner, with no room indoors for seating. As you stare through your own reflection in the darkened glass on a grey-cold afternoon, it’s as though you are visiting an exhibit from the museum of restaurants that no longer exist.
Enter from the right, grab yourself a soft drink from one of the two upright coolers, choose from the expansive menu that hovers like a dirigible over the crowded counter. Listen to the endless give-and-take of Ferretti as he takes your order. Breathe in the melange of smells as your own emerging sandwich blends together with the warmly-scented ghosts of so many others.
“My dad used to call everybody by their first name,” Ferretti says. “It might not have been their real first name, but he used to call them by it.”
Ferretti, who graduated from Northeastern in 1982 with dreams of working for NASA, took over the restaurant from his father—his best friend—in 1995. A photo of Lou, enlarged for his funeral in 2000, is among the treasures that Ferretti plans to salvage in April.
Reactions to the announcement in November of his beloved restaurant’s expiration date caught Ferretti by surprise. In addition to the social and traditional media coverage, Chicken Lou’s was overrun with sentimentally ravenous customers. For the next several weeks, it was forced to close early because the food stocks were sold out by mid-afternoon.
Why stop now, when the demand is as high as ever?
“It’s a quality-of-life thing,” Ferretti says by phone as he sits near a pool in Florida, where he and his family have gathered for their annual vacation during winter break. “We never got rich over at Northeastern, but we never wanted for anything, either.”
His two daughters, Amberle and Gerry, who have run the kitchen from morning till night, will be working alongside their sister, Alana: She is preparing to open The Nest, an infant and toddler development center in their hometown of Merrimack, New Hampshire.
“Their commute will go from an hour and 45 minutes to literally five minutes,” Ferretti says. “You know, I might even go to work with my girls to help take care of the little babies. I can hold an infant pretty well.”
In the meantime, there will be a four-month celebration of Ferretti’s affordable combinations of marinara, mustard, and melted cheese. Chicken Lou’s visiting hours will be reduced, likely from 7 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. A casual gala of some kind will be held around the last supper, Ferretti promises.
“How many orders in 30 years would you think have passed through Lou’s?” Ferretti asks of his daughters as they lounge around the Florida pool.
They agree on an average of 300 per day. Which amounts to 3 million sandwiches, salads, and sides that their family has served to generations of Northeastern customers.
“That sounds about right,” Dave Ferretti says.