Doing her best

Despite facing unforeseen challenges due to COVID and a burglary, Crystal Hockema is doing her best to keep Luigi's Italian Sandwiches up and running in Empire.

Crystal Hockema thought she was making a better life for herself when she bought Luigi's Italian Sandwiches in February 2020. But she had no idea how the world would change just a month later.

After working at Luigi's for a year, Hockema decided to invest in herself when she bought the business that has been a mainstay in Empire for more than 50 years.

"My father gave me some money," she said. I had the money for a while, and I felt like I needed to invest in something. I knew this place had been going for 50 years, so how could I go wrong? I knew I wouldn't get rich, but maybe I could make a living."

But within weeks of taking over the business, COVID-19 hit the United States, and Oregon quickly locked down many small businesses. Hockema said Luigi's stayed open for carry-out customers, but business fell off almost instantly.

"It's been really, really hard," she said. "I wasn't able to let this go. I wasn't going to give up, so I just knuckled down. I don't have any employees. It's just me and my boyfriend, and we run it all the time."

She said for more than 18 months, she and Luigi's survived, but just barely. She paid her bills first and herself second, keeping all her money and valuables locked in a safe in the store. She admits she put a lot of cash in there, which was supposed to pay the bills for the company as well as her tax bill that was due.

Despite the challenges from COVID, Hockema said she was unable to get assistance through programs offered by the state and federal government. She said since she was new to owning Luigi's, she didn't have the records to prove she lost business.

"It was really a struggle for me," she said. "There were days that were OK, but nothing like the year before. It was way busier when I worked here before the coronavirus."

Despite the challenges, Hockema and Luigi's were surviving. That was until she received a call early in the morning October 28. On the other end were Coos Bay police, telling her someone had broken into the store.

She raced down to find the cash registers weren't touched, the food was just fine. Only one thing was missing - the locked safe that had all her cash, jewelry, Social Security cards, vehicle titles and much more.

"My safe had everything in it," Hockema said. "I'm so overwhelmed. I didn't have insurance. I couldn't afford it. I know that's no excuse, but I just don't want to lost my business."

She said she has investigated the theft herself and believes she knows who was responsible, calling them "professionals." But since the police require a stronger level of evidence, no one has yet been charged for the crime.

Without her cash she was storing in the safe, Hockema said she has struggled to pay her bills, both at Luigi's and at home. But she still shows up to work every day in an effort to save the historic business in Empire.

Shortly after the break-in, Hockema posted photos taken by her surveillance cameras of the crime and word began to spread. She then got a few surprises at work.

"People were saying they were willing to help, which surprised me," she said. "A few days after the burglary, I had a customer come in and put down some money. I said, 'What is this for,' and he said, 'I just want to help you.' I saw all the comments online, and they were so nice to me."

One thing Hockema heard frequently was that she should start a gofundme to help raise money to save Luigi's. She had to learn what that was, but last week decided to give it a try.

"I don't want to lose it, and they took all my money," she said. "People kept saying is there a gofundme page. It took me a while, but I finally put my store on it."

To read more of Hockema's story or to help, visit tiny.cc/stkluz.

For Hockema, she said she hates asking for help, but she feels like she has no other option.

"I have to get a new door, I have to get a new door frame," she said. "I had to get a new surveillance system. I have a stack of bills right now. I feel like I'm just overwhelmed."

As for Luigi's, Hockema is doing everything she can to keep it open. The sandwiches that have been a mainstay in Empire for decades are still available every day, with both dine-in and carry-out options.

"We bake everything fresh," Hockema said. "We have a certain taste. The people make it special. We've been her 50 years. It's historic here."

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