On a quiet Thursday afternoon in Louis Family Restaurant, John Gianfrancesco — namesake of the restaurant’s “drunk Johnny omelet,” son of the restaurant's founder and now its co-owner — clinked a metal spoon against a mug of black coffee.
“Hey Freddy,” Gianfrancesco called to an older man sitting across the room: Frederick Tomolillo, former owner of Smart Cuts, a hair salon next to Louis. “Who does this remind you of?”
The two men laughed, reminiscing about how Tomolillo’s father-in-law would often clink a spoon against his coffee mug decades ago.
“He would sit right here,” Gianfrancesco said, pointing at the red stools in front of the kitchen. “And he would tap a cup with a spoon so many times you would want to climb up a wall.”
Louis, which celebrated its 75th birthday during the pandemic, has been a staple of the Providence community throughout its lifetime. While this legacy is apparent in Louis’ decor — which includes scattered black and white photographs and eclectic drawings — and the memories of its patrons and staff, COVID-19 threatened the business and its connection to Brown students.
Gianfrancesco and Tomolillo continued to reminisce about the restaurant. Tomolillo got up and walked toward the cash register. He pointed at a picture of his ex-brother-in-law.
“That’s me over there somewhere … in Vietnam,” he said pointing at a small picture in a collage of images across the room.
Gianfrancesco estimated that Brown students make up 90% of Louis customers on weekends and half on weekdays. He recalled that students used to come to the restaurant when Louis opened at 5 a.m.
Students know this ritual of capping off an all-nighter with a greasy Louis’ breakfast as the “Louis Challenge.”
“When we opened at five, the restaurant would fill up,” Gianfrancesco said. “It was a good time.”
While Gianfrancesco was unaware of the tradition when asked, he smiled after hearing that it had become a formal campus tradition passed down through class years. Despite this, he said that recently, students have been coming less frequently.
“Is the challenge still going on?” he asked.
Dani Poloner ’24 said he has only been to Louis once and has not heard of the challenge. He said he thinks that the Louis Challenge may have been one of the several traditions lost or diminished during the pandemic.
“Maybe it’s like how New Dorm is now Greg,” Poloner said, referencing how Vartan Gregorian Quad is called New Dorm by upperclassmen but was given the moniker “Greg” by the class of 2024 when isolated from other class years due to COVID-19.
Other Brown students who spoke to The Herald knew about the Louis Challenge but haven’t partaken. Nate Price ’23 has been to Louis but failed to stay up late enough to complete the Louis Challenge with friends last semester.
Gianfrancesco said COVID-19 was challenging for the restaurant, which closed for two weeks at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
He said they took advantage of that time to paint the inside of the restaurant and buy a new hot chocolate and coffee machine.
“We thought everything would be ok,” Gianfrancesco said. “But when we opened back up again, there was still no one on Brook Street.”
There was so little business that Gianfrancesco said he could “lie down on Brook Street” and nothing would happen.
“We kept losing money just trying to make payroll,” he added. While Gianfrancesco said the restaurant is making money again, “it’s not what it used to be.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Louis relied on takeout to try to make ends meet. Snackpass, which Louis usually uses to generate revenue when students are on campus, provided less business for the restaurant while Brown was mostly remote.
“We kept thinking we were back to normal but then a new variant would come in,” Gianfrancesco said.
Despite these challenges, Gianfrancesco said things are getting better. “We’re past COVID-19 now,” he added. “But we’re getting old.”
Since its founding in 1946, Louis has changed its hours repeatedly. It is currently open 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week, Gianfrancesco said. Besides changing hours, Louis also changed location from the basement of its current building, where there were no windows, to the ground floor, where it is now.
Kaila Pineda has been working at the restaurant since she was a teenager. She joined the Louis team when her mother married Gianfrancesco's nephew and is now in her fifth year with the restaurant.
“It’s nepotism,” Gianfrancesco joked.
Pineda said Louis has been “like a family … a comfort and home.”
Because the restaurant’s 75th anniversary passed last year during COVID, Pineda and Gianfrancesco said they were unable to have a celebration.
Gianfrinesco was surprised to hear about the anniversary when told that it had happened. “Oh, we passed it already?” he asked, laughing. “I guess it was just another day.”
“When we hit 80 we gotta do something big,” Pineda said. She suggested a parade down Brook Street, and Gianfrancesco laughed. “You can be in charge of that,” he said.
When asked about the future of the restaurant, Gianfrancesco said that “eventually someone will have to take over, but I’m not planning on going anywhere for a while.”
“We don’t want you to go nowhere,” said Pineda, who is studying business management and said that she would love to run Louis eventually. “If they let me run it, I would be blessed.”
Gianfrancesco said that he hopes that the new dorms Brown is building on Brook Street will help attract more business. In the meantime, he added, Louis will keep serving memories and “drunk Johnny omelets.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled John Gianfrancesco's name. The Herald regrets the error.