It's 7 a.m. on a Friday at Northeastern University, and the campus is quiet except for a few early risers, taking their morning jogs or selecting where to eat their first meal of the day.
Kale Whalen, a Northeastern graduate, chooses Chicken Lou's, a small sandwich shop on Forsyth Street.
"Is it too early for a TKO?" he asks.
"No, we can do a TKO for ya," says owner Dave Ferretti.
Whalen is among many in the NU community who venture to Chicken Lou's for this homemade sandwich, even in the early morning. "Tastes good at any time of day," says Whalen, of the chicken, cheese, and bacon sandwich.
While other campus restaurants have come and gone, Chicken Lou's has stood the test of time at Northeastern, surviving on a classic menu of comfort fo
od and its no-frills, in-and-out service. Students and staff cram the small shack of a restaurant, which has stood at 50 Forsyth St. for 23 years and was named “best eatery on campus” for 12 consecutive years.
Chicken Lou's, a family-owned business, began with canteen trucks, which owner Lou Ferretti offered at Northeastern back in 1978. In 1990, he took over the Forsyth location, and the business has been booming ever since. Lou passed away in 2001, leaving the Chicken Lou legacy to his family. His son, Dave, an NU alum, began his career as an engineer, but soon joined his dad at the shop. The Ferretti family works together, cooking, serving, and concocting new fare.
"I got to work with [my dad] during the last 5 years of his life," says Dave. "I hope he enjoyed it as much as I did."
After Lou died, Dave became close with one of his father's good friends, Tom Keady, a vice president at Northeastern in charge of government relations. "He was a good friend to me when my father passed," says Dave. The famous TKO sandwich is short for “Tom Keady Original.”
The TKO is now a family effort. Dave's daughter, Geraldine, who stops by the shack most days before work, has created a new version of the popular combination. It includes the chicken and bacon of the original sandwich, but replaces Swiss cheese with pepper jack, and homemade honey mustard with chipotle ranch.
"That's my newest favorite," Dave says. "I've been eating a lot of those lately."
Each meal has its own creative name, including the Lou'Ben, Chicken Lou's own version of a Reuben, and the Buffa'lou popcorn chicken with fries.
Dave comes up with the original names. "They come to me when I'm sitting in bed, have nothing to do,” he quips.
This simply decorated trailer-sized shack consists of a few fired-up grills and a counter, with picnic table seating outside on warmer days. But for diehard Lou's fans, the cold is no reason to stay away; even in winter, a long line stretches from the door to the counter, with customers waiting to be tossed brown-paper-bagged meals.
Despite the quick service, Dave prides himself on creating a homey atmosphere. Besides the food, the familiarity breeds a new crop of loyalists every school year.
"[Chicken Lou's] is a home away from home” for students, Dave explains. “We're like their parents while they're away at school. We give them (a hard time) when it’s appropriate, and guide them with advice when they need it.”
Recently, Joe Nelligan and Michael Finch, seniors at NU, ate at one of the picnic tables, enjoying their Lou's lunches despite the chilled air. "It's good, greasy comfort food," said Nelligan, a regular.
"I'm here a lot -- but I don't come as often as him," said Finch.
Nelligan smiled as he enjoyed his Chicken Cordon Lou.
"Very few people come as often as me," he said.
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.
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