March 27, 2008

Louie’s Lunch Celebrates 90 Years Feeding Cornell

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Withstanding nearly a century of winter storms and summer heat, the little red and white truck that could — more formally known as Louie’s Lunch — is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. A visual staple on North Campus, the food truck has been serving the Cornell community since 1918 when “Louis” Zounakos, a Greek immigrant, started the Louie’s Lunch tradition. While the truck has passed into the hands of many owners over the years, it is currently owned and operated by Ron Beck, who recounted how he came to own the historical establishment.
“I had two food trucks previous to this, and the owner at the time was a neighbor of mine who was retiring — he knew I was in the same business, and asked me if I wanted to buy him out,” Beck said. “When I bought it, the truck was sitting empty for three months, and I took it home and cleaned it up, and re-opened. It opened on slope day ’97. It’ll be 11 years in May that I’ve had it. I brought it from nothing to what it is now — a campus icon.”
Louie’s Lunch has a large regular base of customers, who are in on some of the establishment’s secrets, most notably its hidden menu. Similar to the secret menu of the West Coast In-n-Out Hamburger establishment, there are menu items available upon request to those who know about them.
“We have an underground menu, which basically means that people have created menu items that are not available to the general public unless you know about them. You’ve got to ask for it to be able to eat it, and they’re some of the best items and are favorites of the regular crowd,” said Jackie Abrams ’08, an employee who has worked at Louie’s Lunch for the last two years.
[img_assist|nid=29157|title=Buffalo chicken wrap for the ages|desc=Louie’s Lunch, the easily recognizable red and white food truck on Thurston Ave., turns 90 this year.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]“One of the most popular underground items is a sandwich developed by Devin Conathan ’08 … which involves chicken, BBQ and hot sauce, and cheese —it’s an unconventional combination that is surprisingly delicious,” Abrams said.
The sandwich is apparently well known within the circle, and according to Beck, may even be immortalized by being placed upon the visible menu.
“Devin has created such a masterpiece that it will soon be added to the mainstream menu. He has left his mark that will be enjoyed by generations to come,” Beck said. An even more memorable sandwich may be the “XXX” buffalo chicken sub, which has sent several patrons running for water.
“Louie’s Lunch is also home to the infamous ‘Triple X,’ the bane of pledges and unsuspecting freshman,” Abrams said. “I’ve occasionally bet customers that if they can finish it without a drink, I’ll buy them a sandwich … that’s happened once.”
“They think they’re up to the challenge until about the third bite, when the sandwich bites back — at which point 90 percent of them realize they made a serious error in ordering it, and their friends start laughing at them,” Beck said. “The next night, they’ll bring their friends back and coerce them unknowingly into the same fiery inferno they experienced the night before.”
Besides providing entertainment to those watching customers try their hand against the Triple X, Louie’s Lunch provides a community on campus. According to Beck, those who frequent Louie’s regularly become much more than just a customer.
“The best part about the job is getting to know people. You see the same people in four-year cycles — first they’re customers, then they become regulars, then they become friends.” Beck said.
Many of those same customers end up becoming employees at some point during their Cornell career, whether they intended to or not.
“I had started hanging out here on Friday nights last semester, and this semester when I saw the list of hours, I was like, I can get paid while I hang out here at Louie’s. Ron always said that if I hung out here long enough I would have the job I never wanted, and now I have it, and I love it,” said Heather Carlsen ’08, another Louie’s Lunch employee.
According to Carlsen and Abrams, the student employees enjoy working at Louie’s because Beck is very understanding of their schedules and obligations as students, while maintaining a professional environment.
“Ron is one of the best employers. He understands not only that his employees are students, but also that they’re people. He’s very considerate of all of their needs and special circumstances,” Abrams said. “People love this job so much that even on nights when we’re not supposed to be working, we come in and hang out, and end up working.”
Many say that Louie’s Lunch is a source of affordable and fresh food that suits their college budget, but also accommodates dietary needs.
“Louie’s isn’t just burgers and subs — there is a full vegetarian menu and we accommodate to allergies, like wheat allergies and lactose intolerance,” Carlsen said. “There’s also a breakfast menu, that’s good any time of the day.”
Whether it is just something to look at on a walk by north campus, a place to grab a bite, or an employer, Louie’s Lunch means something to many on Cornell’s campus — and that is where it’s long standing tradition comes into play.
“It’s much more than a greasy little food truck – don’t discriminate against it because its an old beat up truck – that’s part of the nostalgia. We have a larger menu than most deli’s and we have character,” Beck said. “People come skeptical the first time, but the friendly environment and fresh cooked food hooks them.”
“And by the way,” he added, “Don’t forget to put a hash brown on your bacon, egg and cheese.”