You might say Dick LaHood is a true entrepreneur, one of those guys with a real nose for business.
At 82, the Peoria native continues to preside over a restaurant company that now includes 12 LaGondola Spaghetti Houses — 11 throughout central Illinois and one in Quincy.
LaGondola’s history reflects the energy of its founder. LaHood owned and operated 30 different businesses — from laundromats to teen nightclubs, most located in the Peoria area — in the 25-year period before LaGondola arrived on the scene.
LaHood opened six LaGondola outlets in 1982. In 1983, he started five more. In 1984, an additional four restaurants came online. “I opened 15 stores without borrowing a penny,” he said.
LaHood’s formula is simple: Every store does its own baking and makes its own sauce. Is the sauce the same at all the locations? “Ninety-eight percent the same,” assures John LaHood, 36, Dick’s grandson and manager of the LaGondola restaurant in Peoria, an outlet that still bears the Leonardo’s sign, the eatery Dick LaHood opened at the War Memorial Drive location in 1976.
That’s another part of the LaHood formula: hiring family members whenever possible. A third LaHood generation now runs the LaGondola restaurant in Creve Coeur, an outlet opened 40 years ago by LaHood, his wife Patty, her sister Judy, and her husband Bobby Weaver.
“All the LaGondolas were placed in existing buildings and all were entirely dependent upon the wonderful family managers who went on to make them so successful,” said LaHood.
LaHood’s business history dates back to a time when pizza places and laundromats were scarce in Peoria.
“I was 16 when my father died. I went into business with my brothers in 1956,” he said. The LaHoods opened individual laundromats in Peoria, Galesburg and Clinton, Iowa. Five years after the brothers opened their fourth laundromat, there were some 40 operating in the Peoria area, said LaHood. “The business just exploded,” he said.
Harry LaHood, one of Dick’s brothers, was an electrician who stayed in the laundromat business for 60 years until his death in 2018, said LaHood.
Meanwhile, Dick LaHood opened teen nightclubs, the Kandy Kane and Static Attic. Later came the College Carousel and Tut’s Tomb, both located near Bradley University. Sometimes those operations caused problems for Bradley and the city, recalled LaHood, laughing at the memory.
The recent closing of the Avanti’s restaurant on Main Street near Bradley brings to mind yet another LaHood enterprise, the pizzeria that opened directly across the street from Avanti’s at the corner of Main and University in 1966.
Never one to stand still, LaHood opened other restaurants in Peoria, including Caesar’s, Leonardo’s and the Vineyard, all in the 1970s.
Seeing the growing interest in fast food in the 1980s, LaHood decided to make spaghetti competitive in that arena. “Fast food felt like the future. To compete with the burgers and fried chicken, my idea was home-cooked food and spaghetti — served quickly,” he said.
LaHood’s goal when he opened LaGondola was to feed a family of four for $2.90. That allowed for a half-gallon of spaghetti and sauce with the hope that the customer might also purchase some garlic bread, he said.
Two years after launching the LaGondola line, the spaghetti house was sued by Avanti’s restaurant over the use of “gondola” as the name for a sandwich that Avanti’s claimed it had trademarked.
“I’ve always been friends with Albert,” said LaHood, referring to Avanti’s owner Albert Zeller. “When he sued me, we had coffee together and I told him, ‘I know this is only business,’” LaHood said.
Ultimately, the outcome of the litigation was that LaGondola could not sell a “gondola” sandwich. Rather, they sell a torpedo, “which can sink a gondola anytime,” joked LaHood.
“For three years, the story of this lawsuit was on the television news and in the newspaper. The truth is, it was the best advertising we could ever have hoped for,” he said.
Richard LaHood Jr., 53, who runs LaGondola’s day-to-day operations, said dealing with the pandemic brought its challenges — as it did for so many businesses.
“COVID’s still tough but we’ve done our best not to change anything,” he said. “I’ve been working with my dad for 30 years now and we’re still an old-school restaurant. Each outlet is a bakery as much as a restaurant. It takes a lot of labor.”
Finding that labor has been a tough go, post-pandemic. Earlier this year, La Gondola closed its outlet in Mt. Zion, just south of Decatur, because of a lack of staff.
“Never in a million years would we have imagined closing a thriving location due to the inability to fully staff both stores (in the Decatur area), and to accommodate the level of demand with the quality and service we strive for,” the restaurant noted on a Facebook post, urging the public to continue supporting small businesses.
Alas, setbacks – and surmounting them – are nothing new to Dick LaHood, who recalled interest rates of over 20 percent in the early ‘80s. “God gifted me with two families — my own and my LaGondola family,” he said.