FLINT, Michigan -- For 60 years, Luigi’s restaurant has been a staple on Flint’s eastside, situated at the corner of Vernon Avenue and Davison Road in the Eastside Franklin Park Neighborhood. The business has continued to be a pillar of the community, even amidst the economic and public health challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tom Beaubien stands behind the bar inside Luigi's restaurant.
“I'm getting teared up about thinking about it. It was a hard, hard, hard year,” said Tom Beaubien, who co-owns Luigi’s with Kirk Laue. “You know, people's spending and buying habits are habitual. If they don't come here and get food, they'll have it somewhere else or do something different. Plus, there are people around this restaurant ... Just go like draw a circle for five miles, that's a lot of people. I want to be here for them. I want them to rely on me. I know my business partner feels the same way. We want to be here for them.”
Beaubien grew up on Delaware Avenue with his mother, father, and three brothers. Beaubien’s father was an administrator for Flint Schools and his mother was a nurse before they both retired in 2004. Beaubien is a Flint Central High School graduate and after high school, he went on to play soccer for Kalamazoo College. After college, he returned to Flint and worked as a Busch Beer distributor.
At 26-years-old, he decided with his friend Laue to look into purchasing Luigi’s from previous owners Louie Appolonia and Russell Angell. Beaubien remembers growing up eating pizza from Luigi’s at least twice a month with his family.
“We came to Luigi's because they served alcohol and they had pizza,” he said. “It was perfect for mom, dad, and kids. We would sit over here [he points to a booth in the restaurant]. And then when the food came and we all started to eat, my mom and dad would get up and come to the bar side and sit in here, drink with their friends and be social.”
When Beaubien and Laue became the new owners of Luigis in 1996, they did so with a dedication and a promise to keep Luigi’s the way it originated: stone-cooked pizza, sausage baked to perfection on the pizza, and a family atmosphere.
“After a couple of conversations with them [the previous owners], they were really interested in us because we were interested in number one, keeping it the same,” Beaubien said. “Number two, keeping all their employees. And number three, they already knew that we both were vested in the community. We were not just somebody who was going to come in and make a quick buck, turn around, and sell it again and try to make money on it. They knew we were going to be here to run the business for an exponential period of time.”
Danielle Groce checks out a returning customer picking up takeout pizza.
Maintaining Luigi’s has not come without major hurdles. When AC Spark Plug, James Lumber, and several other large anchor businesses in the area closed, the number of guests at the restaurant saw downturns. However, the dedication of returning customers from the neighborhood never failed.
“We have really loyal customers, they have kept us afloat. Our customers really love us and are really loyal to us,” said Danielle Groce, an employee at Luigi’s for the last four years.
The pandemic became another hurdle that impacted the restaurant, and not just from a business perspective. Beaubien was diagnosed with COVID-19 in October of 2020. He was taken to the University of Michigan’s emergency room and was intubated and admitted to the intensive care unit. Beaubien’s health caused great concern for his family and health care providers during his treatment. The hospital staff was unable to extubate Beaubien two times before finally being able to take him off the ventilator and put him on nasal cannula-supported oxygen.
The virus caused damage to Beaubien’s clotting factors and kidney function. He also suffered from an infiltrated intravenous line that leaked medication into his subcutaneous tissue. He also developed 22 clots into the same forearm and hand. After Beaubien started dialysis, his treatment was able to heal and return his normal kidney function. He did require physical therapy and hospitalization for his hand but now has most of his functions back.
The amount of grit and tenacity Beaubien and his partner have shown during the pandemic is a reflection of community members who are just as dedicated in their support of Luigi’s restaurant. There were many days where Beaubien and Laue worked in the kitchen for hours to keep up with take-out orders during the height of the lockdown.
“We've had a really tough year since the pandemic. I had two employees pass away [not from COVID]. It was tragic,” Beaubien said. “So it's been really hard. Our family has been very, very upset in the last year here. We lost some really key employees because of the pandemic. Five or six people just said, ‘ I'm just going to take the unemployment money’ and walked away. And they were key employees that have been here. One guy had been here since 1996. We had to hunker down. [The staff] are my core group of people, we make them a part of our life. We call it a family down here and we make them part of our family.”
Raquel Littlejohn has worked at Luigi’s for 22 years and has witnessed the changes to the surrounding community as well.
“If you think about the location and all of the happenings going on around here, we just seem to stay steady at like a baseline,” she said. “I think that just comes with respect from the community. You know when you feel comfortable, like you have your grocery store, even though [there is] one 10 miles closer, but you just feel, you know, this is your home store. I think the community feels like that about Luigi's and it's pretty amazing because people move out, but they still feel home here, you know?”
Beaubien remains dedicated to the neighborhood and has plans to add outdoor seating in the future. He has hopes that the business will continue to remain a staple in the neighborhood and in the city.
“Hopefully we can reopen a little bit more without putting people in danger,” he said. “That's my biggest thing. Everybody wants restoration of life and I don't want to see people get hurt.”