An artist. A visionary. A risk-taker.
Those were among the words used today to describe Harrisburg restaurateur Nick Laus, who died suddenly early Saturday.
Brian Fertenbaugh met Laus 10 years ago, becoming general manager of Level 2, a nightclub that Laus had opened. Fertenbaugh then became manager of Café Fresco Center City, later buying both establishments.
“He was a mentor and a friend,” he said. “He had the vision and the ability to execute, which not many people in our industry have.”
Harrisburg’s tight-knit food community has been in mourning since Saturday, when word began to spread that Laus, 59, had died unexpectedly. An innovative, serial entrepreneur, he started restaurants as varied as Café Fresco, Home 231, Cork & Fork and Burger Yum, in addition to the nightclub, Level 2.
A viewing, funeral Mass and burial will take place on Friday just outside of Harrisburg city (see below for the full obituary).
Fertenbaugh said the news of Laus’ passing shocked those who had worked for him, and many gathered on Saturday night at Café Fresco to share stories and toast the man who had helped so many start and advance their careers.
Laus, Fertenbaugh said, brought a new type of dining to Harrisburg, a more upscale, yet still accessible and affordable product, along with an obsession with customer service and the overall dining experience. He often went on scouting trips to larger cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to learn about trends he could bring back to Harrisburg.
“Nick saw things in a different way,” he said. “He had the ability to put together the total package, where you have great food, atmosphere and a style that’s popular.”
Food photographer Ali Waxman worked with Laus for the last seven years. He said that Laus spared no effort or expense to ensure that his food looked as good in pictures as it tasted in his restaurants.
“He was such a talent, a visionary,” said Waxman. “He wasn’t afraid to take risks with ideas or concepts.”
He also wasn’t afraid to take risks with people, Waxman said. Laus was able to spot talent in a bartender or server, elevating them and even preparing them to own their own establishments.
“He saw talent in people that others couldn’t see,” Waxman said. “And he gave them opportunities to become managers and even owners.”
Restaurateur Qui Qui Musarra was one of the first to honor Laus on Saturday, sharing her grief with the online community soon after learning of his death.
Today, Musarra and her partners, Staci Basore and Elide Hower, released a statement expressing their sense of loss.
“We here at Mangia Qui, Suba and Rubicon tip our hats to the generosity of spirit he has shared with us,” they said. “He will be greatly missed.”
They added that, often, the public doesn’t witness all the hard work and even anguish that goes into making a restaurant a success.
“The public perception of people involved in the restaurant industry, especially owners, is typically of success and contentment–many times belies the private truths of one’s life,” they said. “So it was with Nick Laus–a professional, a colleague and a comrade-in-arms.”
David La Torre of the Cork & Fork investor group emphasized the impact that Laus had on dining in the Harrisburg area.
“He was more than a restaurateur,” La Torre said, in a statement. “He was an artist who has left an indelible mark on the central Pennsylvania restaurant scene.”
In fact, several restaurateurs emphasized Laus’ influence and impact.
“Once he decided to open downtown, Harrisburg was never the same,” Fertenbaugh said.
Laus’ greatest legacy, said several restaurateurs, was his eagerness to help to others. That sentiment is reflected in his family’s wish that, to best honor his memory, people should not send flowers, but perform “a random act of kindness.”
Obituary for Nick Laus
Nicholas “Nick” Joseph Laus, age 59, died on June 9, 2018 in his home. He was born in Lima, Peru, and immigrated to the United States at a young age, where he became a U.S. citizen. Nick graduated from Bishop McDevitt High School in 1978. He is the son of Doris Soce and brother to Anita (Laus) Chilmaza, her husband Armando Chilmaza, and his brother John Laus.
Nick leaves behind his beloved daughter, Chanelle Laus, who he cherished, and a loving family of nieces, nephews, aunts, cousins and godchildren. He loved his dogs, Rocco and Bruno; they were his constant companions and could often be found patrolling tables at his many restaurants.
For more than three decades, Nick developed a reputation as a visionary in the central Pennsylvania restaurant industry, creating some of the most well-known and popular eateries. His many creations include Cork & Fork, Café Fresco and Home 231, which are still amongst the most frequented dining establishments in the Harrisburg area.
Perhaps an even greater legacy than his business accomplishments is how Nick treated people in his life. He mentored and touched many — believed in them. He often paid it forward and thought nothing of buying the groceries for everyone in line ahead of him. That was Nick. He cared so much for so many. As Chanelle has said: “He was extraordinary, loyal, and strong. He was stern but always kind. He was funny, loved hard and expected little in return. To those who he loved — he gave everything.”
Funeral services will be held on June 15, 2018 with family greeting friends for a viewing at Neill Funeral Home, 3501 Derry St., Harrisburg, from 9 a.m. to noon. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 12:30 p.m. by Father Neil Sullivan at St. Catherine Laboure Church, 4000 Derry St., Harrisburg. Burial will follow at Resurrection Cemetery, 116 South Oak Grove Rd., Harrisburg.
In lieu of flowers, Nick’s family asks that his friends pay it forward by performing a random act of kindness. Through such acts, Nick’s legacy will live on.