Viva! Lu’s Pizza
Twenty-four years ago, a restaurant in Aberdeen closed that still so tantalizes its patrons they’ve flocked to rare opportunities to re-experience the tastes they’re missing. Lu’s Pizza remains close to the heart of so many Aberdonians that Doug Griess, whose mother Lucille was the pizza queen, can’t return to his hometown without getting stopped on the street to hear a great reminiscence of the old restaurant.
The roots of the Italian specialty Lu’s served actually came from Germany, where the family lived during Doug’s father’s military service. They ate pizza there and brought the delicacy back to the States, first to Lu’s home state of North Dakota then to Aberdeen. When they got back to America, “Lu started making pizzas,” Doug says, and like a dutiful son, “I ate them. Sometimes seven days a week. But they were mealtime-appropriate pizzas like egg omelet pizza for breakfast.”
Lu catered small house parties, but it wasn’t quite enough for her. As Doug observes, “Lu had hopes and dreams like all of us, but had the motivation to make things happen.”
In 1963, in the kitchen at home, Lu began making and freezing pizzas, which she sold to local stores, starting with the old Four Brothers grocery store. When the kitchen and then the basement weren’t big enough, she built what Doug calls a small pizza factory, a cinder block kitchen, in the backyard, and the business continued to grow. Seeing an opportunity in an ordinance that allowed bars and nightclubs to stay open late if they sold food, Lu supplied frozen pizza and ovens. Then her market expanded to grocery stores in several other counties, so she refurbished a delivery van with a freezer and spelled out the business name on the hood in reverse like an ambulance, so cars in front could read it in their rearview mirror.
Opening a restaurant was inevitable, and Lu started up at 6th Avenue and Main Street. In line with the interesting habit humans have of building a new place of worship on the site of a previous culture’s temple, Domino’s now occupies the same space. The story of that first location is yet more interesting. Initially, Lu purchased property on 6th Avenue next to Moccasin Creek, planning to open there. But a few days later, her realtor called to say he could help her turn a profit on her brand new investment, because a place called McDonald’s was looking for property in Aberdeen. Thus was born Lu’s Pizza on Main Street in 1966.
Altogether, Lu’s operated out of four locations in Aberdeen, moving from the south end of downtown north of the tracks to Main and 1st Avenue NE, where the name became Lu’s Italian Villa (and later International Villa). This was the largest place and the location where she stayed the longest (it now houses RAM Enterprises). Next, Lu’s moved a few blocks south to Main and Railroad Avenue, across from the Flame (now a vacant lot). The final location was South 2nd Street and 3rd Avenue SW, the current Auto Towne.
No matter where Lu landed, she created a place people wanted to go. “It was kind of a Happy Days place,” Doug says. “She enjoyed the delightful reaction from people when she invented something new.” The most popular pizza was Lu’s House Special, which featured mushrooms, green peppers, pepperoni, and Italian sausage. Lu also loved to combine unusual ingredients, like potato and beef; blue cheese, mushroom, and onion; shrimp, green peppers, and mushrooms; and chili. Brian Schumacher, who remembers Lu’s from the 1960s and beyond, says Lu’s pizza affected his taste buds permanently: “I don’t like the pepperoni pizza I get these days because Lu’s was the best I ever had. Today, pepperoni just doesn’t measure up.” Liz Snow, who has since moved away from Aberdeen but frequented the shop in the 1970s and 1980s, remembers the “sauerkraut and peanut butter and jelly pizzas,” and concludes that Lu’s “was the best pizza in the world.”
It was a great place to work too. Doug remembers, “Lu also employed a large number of people who enjoyed their jobs. A lot of camaraderie and warm feelings of friendship, closeness and loyalty shared among the group.” Like his six siblings who all worked at Lu’s at one point or another, Doug did most jobs around the family business. “I delivered a lot of pizzas, which helped me afford a two-year- old Camaro while in high school.”
Besides the restaurant, Lu also offered a catering service. She once fed 1,500 people for a Chamber of Commerce banquet in the Civic Arena (the Aberdeen American News said guest Johnny Cash called his meal the “best damned prime rib” he ever had). Doug, who has twice come back to Aberdeen to make Lu’s pizzas for Roncalli High School reunions, laments, “I thought I beat her by doing 1,000 pizzas for the 2014 reunion!”
After a couple of decades of this, Lu saw her future in the glitziest place in the glitzy West—Las Vegas. Over time, she gradually started moving there, opening a restaurant while keeping Lu’s open in Aberdeen, which helped finance her westward expansion. During the business transition to Las Vegas, Doug had a customized van and made a dozen roundtrips hauling supplies from Aberdeen to Vegas.
Ultimately, Lu settled there permanently in 1978, arriving the day a Vegas fixture died, Elvis Presley. Whatever that portended, however, it apparently wasn’t bad. Her restaurant thrived, attracting the ubiquitous Las Vegas celebrities, including piano showman Liberace, the pop singers the Captain and Tennille (who loved Lu’s sauerkraut pizza), and porn star (and former Ivory Snow mom) Marilyn Chambers. In time, Lu connected with a partner and created a marriage chapel empire, which, after her 2010 death, her family continues to run.
Meanwhile, back in Aberdeen, Lu’s Pizza hung on until it closed its doors in 1993 and launched a diaspora of unrequited pizza patrons.
Why does it linger in people’s minds? Doug believes there are several reasons for its popularity. “First and foremost, the food and flavors. The restaurant became the place to go for many families. A place to enjoy each other and a place to meet others. Nothing is more personal than your favorite food. And it was a fun place to share it with family and friends.”
Aberdonian Teresa Garofalo went to Lu’s with her family, “I was too young then to drive myself anywhere so I definitely went with family. It was a special treat if we all got to go out for pizza.” She adds, in a common refrain among Lu’s fans, “I remember the pizza being so much different from what I had known before. Lu’s was something really distinct from that—the crust, the sauce were very different. We loved it!”
The memories don’t surprise Doug: “Lu was a caring person but also had a hard business side.” Brian Schumacher agrees, “Lu’s was a great place to hang out while I was in high school, and it was affordable for a high school freshman to eat there. But there was a limit to how long Lu would let kids just hang around after we were done eating before she would shoo us out to make room for paying customers, and I can’t complain about that.”
As noted, Doug brought Lu’s pizza back to Aberdeen twice for all school reunions at his Roncalli alma mater in 2004 and 2014, serving hundreds of people, both alumni and townies, with pizza that he made with the volunteer help of many Lu’s fans. Garofalo was one of those fans: “We had people lined up through the cafetorium and out the door and down the hall! People loved getting the chance to taste that pizza again.”
Doug, who is now a Twin Cities video editor, is keeping the spirit of Lu’s alive in other ways too, including the website luspizza.com, a YouTube video on “How to make Lu’s pizza,” and a forthcoming coffee table book. In addition to Doug’s efforts, another family member runs a Facebook page called People Who Loved Lu’s Pizza.
If these aren’t enough for you to reconnect to your favorite pizza joint, maybe you’ll be lucky enough for the ultimate. If you happen to bump into Doug on one of his Aberdeen visits, he might bestow upon you Lu’s secret spices, which he often carries with him in plastic bags. Then you can then go home and make your own genuine Lu’s pizza. It’s almost like being there. Long live Lu’s! // –Patrick Gallagher
In this excerpt from his book, a true labor of love to memorialize his mother’s work, Doug Griess eulogizes a great Aberdeen entrepreneur and her creation: “A tradition was born. The restaurant became “the place” to go for many families. A place to enjoy each other and a place to meet others. Both customers and employees enjoyed a mutually satisfying social experience. The secret to Lu’s success? Passion. A passion for flavors, a passion for creativity, a passion for making people happy. Simple recipes, basic flavors, and an uncompromising attention to detail.One person’s recipe to success that captured the hearts of many. Pizza is personal, and Lu delivered