(La Porte, IN) - Customers flocked to Louie’s Café to say goodbye Monday, not just to an institution of downtown La Porte, but to people they saw as family.
Longtime customer Kelly Nelson of La Porte had all of the waitresses stand together during the breakfast rush for a group picture she took to help in keeping memories of the beloved restaurant alive.
“This is not about the food. This is our family. We’re going to miss them so much, all of these girls. We love them all,” she said.
Nelson and her husband, Terry, brought their granddaughter, Taylor, whose picture as a toddler at the restaurant was included in a display of other customer photos at the checkout.
Louie Vasilarakos was a manager in the restaurant business in Merrillville when he opened his own doors in the city in 1977, said his son and current owner, Tom Vasilarakos.
Initially, he offered mainly sandwiches on the city’s east side before offering more of a traditional restaurant menu on the west end of the community.
In 1985, Louie’s Café moved to Lincolnway and Madison Street where it’s been ever since.
Vasilarakos, who worked for his father since he was 15, bought the restaurant from his mother, Denise, after Louie passed away in 2013.
Eventually, Vasilarakos, 60, said he needed a change from working 12 hour shifts, six days a week at the restaurant. He said none of his children wanted to take over the establishment and he tried selling it but couldn’t find a buyer.
Itching to move on, Vasilarakos said closing became the only choice to begin a new chapter in his life, which began Saturday with marriage to his bride, Diana.
He’s going to pursue other passions such as a career as a certified personal physical fitness trainer and operate a recording studio for bands to produce their music.
“It’s time to pursue other things and get into something that’s a little less stressful,” he said.
Nick Bernel was a member of the 1997 LaPorte High School basketball team when the squad was treated to a spaghetti dinner there before their trip to Indianapolis to play in the state finals.
Bernel, now an architect and restaurant owner in Washington D.C., said came home to visit his family a few days earlier than he originally planned so he could sit down for a final meal at Louie’s Café before it closed.
“It’s really sad but I’m glad he’s moving on and doing something else with his life,” he said.
Ed Snow and Art Smith had breakfast at Louie’s Café every Monday for the past 15 years and considered the restaurant sort of a home away from home.
“It’s a good place to come in, relax. You can joke around and nobody gets offended. It’s family. It’s family. It’s going to be missed,” Snow said.
Mary Choromokos, a waitress at the restaurant for 40-years, fought back tears while serving a number of customers unable to keep themselves from crying.
“Very, very sad. This is home. Great boss. Everybody is great here,” said Patty Metheny, a waitress for 14-years at the restaurant.
Annette Voorhees was a customer for 38-years prior to becoming a waitress there over two-years ago.
“I’m happy for them because they get to start a new adventure but I’m very sad about closing down. Very sad,” she said.
Tom Demakas of Chesterton worked 40 years as a cook for his uncle, Louie, and later his cousin, Tom.
Demakas, 73, said he felt good about being able to retire from what can be a tough yet fun business.
He also felt badly for their customers.
“We’ve been here a long time together. It’s like family. It’s going to be tough leaving but you got to retire sooner or later,” he said.
Vasilarakos said he started realizing today was the final day after reporting for work. He felt biscuits and gravity will be the menu item most remembered by their customers.
Usually, he said the amount of sausage gravy that has to be made is about 30 gallons a week but increased to about 45 gallons a week recently after word spread about the restaurant closing.
“We’ve cooked a lot of meals for our community here and it’s been well appreciated. I couldn’t ask for a better town to get something going in,” he said.