Owners of beloved burger joint Little Louie’s begin their next culinary chapter

By Ian Hunter

When one door closed, a window of opportunity opened for the owners of a beloved Cambridge restaurant.

After 10 years in business, Little Louie’s Burger Joint & Soupery closed their doors back in early April. Soon after, a window opened for its owners to stay in business by expanding their catering company and providing food service for a local post-secondary school.

Steven Allen and Rachelle Matlow are the husband and wife duo behind Little Louie’s and Lily Ruth Catering. Back in April, they chose not to renew the lease at their Clyde Road location. With most of the restaurant business in limbo, they put their livelihood on hold, but eventually closed their restaurant.

“My wife and I looked at each other and we went over the numbers and the only way we could do Skip the Dishes or do some form of takeout would just mean we’re working twice as hard. We’re not bringing any staff in, we’d do it ourselves, and we’d barely break even, so we’d be working for nothing,” Allen said.

They were fortunate because their five-year lease wrapped up in April, which allowed them to walk away from the business with few strings attached. It wasn’t feasible for them to operate amid an uncertain climate.

Little Louie’s opened in April 2010 innocently enough as Allen and Matlow sought somewhere to establish their catering business. Lily Ruth catering evolved from the original restaurant which was an upscale fine dining establishment in downtown Cambridge once named by the National Post as “one of the best restaurants you’ve never heard of”.

“We needed space just for the catering, so it was never supposed to be a burger joint,” Allen said. “Little Louie’s came about because we were looking for another kitchen, another place that was empty and the rate was reasonable; it was in the non-business area, and it was cheap for us, and it had a kitchen and it had a history from back in the 60s as a burger joint.”

They envisioned doing the majority of their business through catering, while selling 100 burgers a week out the front door. The burgers gained a cult following and the burger business took off. Soon it was a 50/50 revenue split between Little Louie’s and Lily Ruth Catering.

At their peak, Little Louie’s sold 350 burgers a day, with some customers waiting hours to try the “burger of the week” or to customize their own burger from upwards of 40 toppings and 20 sauces.

Little Louie’s gained even more popularity after appearing on season three of Food Network’s “You Gotta Eat Here” in 2016. Allen estimates business was actually brisker before appearing on the Food Network, but the lines got longer after having their restaurant featured on television.

“People would say to me: After the Food Network got there, it must’ve been so crazy for you. Well, it was actually crazier beforehand,” Allen said. “Afterwards, it made the lineups bigger, but we just couldn’t fit anybody else in there. We were doing 350 people on a Friday and that was insanity from 11 in the morning to 8 at night.”

Although it was difficult to walk away from the empire they had built up over the last decade, Allen and Matlow felt the timing was right to close Little Louie’s and focus on the catering side of their business.

Allen is also a professor in the Culinary and Hospitality program at Conestoga College, and he witnessed first-hand the devastating effects that COVID had on the restaurant and hospitality sector. He calls himself fortunate that Little Louie’s lease expired when it did, otherwise they’d be on the hook for thousands in rent each month with very little light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

“I saw a lot of friends and peers just tank their businesses and walk away,” Allen said. “Depending on how they financed their business originally, those that put their cars and houses up because they wanted to follow their dream ended up losing big time.”

In a fortuitous turn of events, after sitting idle for months, catching up on his fly fishing and becoming a part-time beekeeper, Allen lucked into an opportunity to take over the industrial kitchen at Heritage College in Hespeler.

The school sought a caterer to serve meals for the students this upcoming school year, and Allen jumped at the chance. Having catered a prior event at Heritage College, his staff were already accustomed to the space. Now they’re serving lasagnas and shepherd’s pies to hungry students.

“The kitchen is twice the size of the entire floor space of the entirety of Little Louie’s,” Allen said. “We were doing events for 300 to 400 person weddings coming out of Little Louie’s Kitchen, while we were trying to do 1,000 burgers a week. Now we have a kitchen that’s twice the size of the entire building there. My chef said he needs an electric scooter to get around the kitchen, now.”

Little Louie’s as a business may be gone, but the burgers will live on in some form through Lily Ruth catering. In the future, they hope to host a “Little Louie’s night” where their signature burgers and fries will be available for takeout.

By chance, Allen catered a burger night at Heritage College for staff and students, and on a whim he made an extra batch of burgers and put them up for sale on Little Louie’s Facebook page. Within hours, they were flooded with orders from people looking to get their Little Louie’s fix.

“We thought: Okay, we’ll sell two or three dozen burgers out the back door, and that will make it a little more worthwhile for us. We sold 250 burgers,” Allen said. “I had to stop people, I said: We can’t keep up anymore.”

Down the line, Allen hopes to set up an e-commerce site where customers can buy frozen lasagnas, shepherd’s pies, and Little Louie’s signature soups. The quintessential Little Louie’s burgers will be for sale as well. Maybe not exactly as they were from the restaurant on Clyde Road, but pretty close to the original.

One silver lining from the pandemic for Allen’s family was he found more time to do the things he’s always wanted to. Typically, his week was crammed between the restaurant, the catering business and teaching at Conestoga. But once COVID-19 decimated countless restaurants, Allen took the opportunity to slow down and catch up on life.

“I’ve been in this 35 years and when have I ever had enough time to go fly fishing 25 times in the spring? My daughter and I have camped three separate times now. We’ve canoed down the Grand twice already. We’ve biked to Paris and back a half dozen times. That doesn’t happen when I’m working 60 hours a week and trying to teach college. The silver lining is we had a decent summer of doing things that we never would’ve done before.”

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