Mike Lenzi received the call on Friday, September 14, 2018.
The day before, a series of gas explosions had rocked the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, just a few miles up Route 110 from Lenzi’s Catering. Crews from NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas, worked around the clock for months, repairing the damage and restoring power.
Back in Dracut, Mike and his wife, Sandy, were preparing for their son Myles’ 30th birthday bash.
As Mike recalls, “I got a call at 5 o’clock from NiSource: ‘Can you feed 575 people at 7 o’clock tonight in Lawrence?’ So we put the birthday party on hold and got to work. We pulled the van in at 10 minutes to 7 with the food. Then they said, ‘Can you come back tomorrow morning and feed 575 for breakfast?’
“And that’s what it was for 100 days in a row. We fed 575 for breakfast, 575 for lunch, 575 for dinner and 575 for a late-night buffet, every day. I don’t think we could have done 101. The lights never went off in here for 100 days.”
Lenzi’s Catering at 810 Merrimack Avenue is Dracut Economic Development’s May Business of the Month. It’s that commitment to helping the community without even having time to think about it that keeps people coming to Lenzi’s for their functions.
(Before we get much further in the story of Lenzi’s, we should mention the one question many people have: Will The Tavern at Lenzi’s, the restaurant side of the business, ever reopen? Stay tuned; more on that later.)
The building at 810 Merrimack Avenue, along the Merrimack River, has a storied history. It was originally the home of the Windsor Mills restaurant, owned by George Spaneas. It had been the site of many a wedding reception and a regular dining spot for thousands in the Merrimack Valley, who would come for miles for the famous chicken pot pie.
Everyone who grew up in Dracut and surrounding communities has a memory of “the Windsor,” as it was known, including the current owner, whose father, Albert Lenzi Sr., was a regular.
“When I was little, my father used to come in for pizza twice a week to the Windsor,” Mike said. “George would always say, ‘How ya doin’, Albie,’ and my father would say, ‘Good, George, how’s business?’ And George would always say the same thing: ‘The function business is really going good, but if I really hated someone, I’d have them run this restaurant for two weeks and that would kill them.’”
The Windsor (as well as its later incarnation, the Mill House Restaurant) eventually closed in the late 1990s, opening the door for new ownership and a new chapter in the building’s history.
Mike and Sandy Lenzi had been working for Al at Ricky’s Dog House on Bridge Street in downtown Lowell. Al had opened Ricky’s in 1953, and for most of the remainder of the 20th century, the spot was a favorite among Lowell High School students and folks who worked in downtown Lowell.
One day in 1987, a friend asked if Mike could cater his wedding at Mount Pleasant Golf Club in Lowell.
“So I asked my dad, and he said yes. We catered it out of the back of the sandwich shop. It took my dad two weeks to get around to asking how much money we made, and when I told him 3,500 before expenses, he said, ‘Do you know how many hot dogs I gotta sell to make 3,500?’”
Thus was born Lenzi’s Catering. Ricky’s closed in 1990, and for the next decade or so, the catering business was run out of that tiny Bridge Street spot.
“We were doing as much as we could possibly do out of that building,” said Mike, who also taught culinary arts at Greater Lowell Technical High School for 16 years, a job Mike’s son, Michael Riley, now holds.
In 2001, Mike and Sandy bought the old Windsor Mills and started catering their own functions. They eventually bought and tore down two houses and a small motel adjacent to the property, turning that land into an outdoor function area.
The chicken pot pie remained the most popular item, though Mike admits to making a slight error in judgment when he and his family took over.
“Shortly after we got here, we did a party for seniors, and we served the chicken pot pie,” he said. “After the lunch, they wanted me to come out, and I figured they were gonna thank me, so I go out there and I go to take the microphone, and the guy pulls it back and says, ‘How many people liked the chicken pot pie?’ And they all start booing. When I asked what they didn’t like, they said the crust wasn’t the same as the Windsor’s. So we went back to the traditional crust. The next time we had the seniors in, they all clapped.”
For 15 years, Lenzi’s Catering was strictly a function facility. In 2015, Mike and Sandy decided to reopen the restaurant section. They called it The Tavern at Lenzi’s, and it soon became a go-to spot. And, yes, though the tavern became known for its mouth-watering entrees, including the prime rib, many people started flocking back for the chicken pot pie.
“It is what it is,” Mike said. “It’s a staple, and it’s our signature dish. It was a big seller during COVID.”
Ah, COVID. You can’t ignore the impact the pandemic had on businesses, and maybe the most negatively affected was the food industry.
Lenzi’s started selling its chicken pot pies to go during the pandemic, and they flew out of the building.
Once restrictions were lifted, The Tavern at Lenzi’s reopened on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only, but the ensuing labor crisis saw a drastic decrease in workers. At the same time, once functions were again allowed, the catering side of Lenzi’s started to flourish again.
“Catering picked up, and we needed the people running the restaurant to work the functions,” Mike said.
The tavern closed in the fall of 2022, much to the chagrin of its regulars – and its owners.
“They miss us. We miss them,” Mike said. “But it’s a different world in this labor market. It’s brutal. We don’t know how, but it has to straighten itself out. We haven’t gotten an application in months.”
So when will the Tavern reopen?
“It’s a question that can’t be answered,” Mike said. “I was working the line for six months before we decided we couldn’t do it anymore.”
The upshot? There are no plans to reopen the tavern in the foreseeable future.
“Which makes the owner very melancholy,” Mike said.
On the positive side, Mike said Lenzi’s catered 2,710 events – both on premises and off – in 2022, making it the sixth-largest caterer in Massachusetts, according to the Boston Business Journal. And they’re approaching their 100,000th catering event, likely to happen within the next couple of years.
“We do a lot of bereavements, showers, birthdays, barbecues, weddings, fundraisers, company outings, corporate meetings,” Mike said. “When we first moved in here, we had a 100th birthday party, and I thought it was a big deal. Now we probably do 15 100th-birthday parties a year – and usually the guest of honor isn’t the oldest one at the party. One year, a 106-year-old gentleman drove himself here for Easter.”
The recent Easter holiday saw Lenzi’s sell out its buffet, and the same for the Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day events. In fact, according to Bonnie Kinnal, the function coordinator, “On St. Patrick’s Day, the regulars said, ‘You should do this once a month.’”
(On Sunday, May 14, Lenzi’s will host its popular Mother’s Day buffet. Call 978-458-2323 to make a reservation.)
And while finding employees may be nearly impossible, having a large family doesn’t hurt. Lenzi’s has siblings, children, cousins, nieces, nephews and longtime friends working for them. As Mike pointed out, Bob Sawicki, now 83, has worked for the Lenzi family for close to 70 years.
“When Bob was a teenager, he applied for a job at a place across the street from Ricky’s,” Mike said. “Then he came across to Ricky’s to apply, and my father handed him an apron and said, ‘You’re hired.’ He never left.
“That’s what’s remarkable — the longevity of our employees,” he added. “There’s something to be said for longevity. It shows we’re a good place to work.”
Call Lenzi’s at 978-458-2323 or visit www.lenzicatering.com.
Dan Phelps is the Economic Development Project Planner for the Town of Dracut.