Small Goes Big | Veteran Businesses in Detroit

March 20, 2017  |   Story by Faye Brown  

Detroit’s Veteran businesses shine anew as they welcome the city’s next generation of entrepreneurs.

In celebration of the opening of the new upscale men’s store that proudly bears his name, designer/owner John Varvatos threw a party that shut down part of Woodward Avenue and attracted the likes of Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander and his supermodel fiance, Kate Upton, singer Michael Bolton and rocker Alice Cooper, who put on a concert.

The classy boutique on the corner of Woodward and John R is receiving well-deserved buzz for establishing a glam retail spot in the heart of Detroit. But when The New York Times ran an article about Varvatos in April 2015, he wasn’t photographed in front of his new store. Varvatos posed around the corner on Broadway Street at Henry the Hatter, one of Detroit’s oldest businesses. The article pictured Varvatos standing near the shop’s signature display window gleaming with stylish headwear.

“It’s where I bought hats growing up,” said Varvatos, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Allen Park. “I chose Henry the Hatter because it’s a Detroit icon, and the store resonates with me. I hope the John Varvatos Detroit store will do the same.”

Varvatos’ mini media tour of the city, which highlighted many long-standing establishments, demonstrates a growing respect for the sticking and staying power of Detroit’s veteran small-business owners.

And the sentiment is reciprocal. Several of the city’s longtime business personalities are just as vocal about how happy they are to see a bevy of newcomers make their mark on the cityscape. The more the merrier, they add, with the hope that all the newbies will spell better business for everyone.

“A new place opens, and the sun shines on it,” said Joe Zainea, longtime owner of Garden Bowl, downtown’s infamous bowling alley celebrating 104 years in business this year. The way Zaniea sees it, as long as there’s enough sunshine for all, everyone thrives.

With that, Visit Detroit thought it was due time to shine a little extra light on the small businesses that demonstrate Detroit’s brand of stick-and-stay power. We can’t name ‘em all, of course, but here are a few favorites, as well as other venerables around the region.

1. Carhartt

Established: Dearborn 1889

The secret to surviving 128 years is providing high-quality workwear at affordable prices and listening to and adapting a product line to meet customers’ needs. That’s the assessment of Mark Valade, chairman and CEO of Carhartt, the legendary workwear line that started in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn in 1889.

Over the years, Carhartt has evolved its products to allow for technologies such as sweat-wicking, stain-release and water-repellency.

Valade said the company has long been interested in opening a retail store in Detroit and was waiting for the right time and place. That time is now. This year, Carhartt opened a retail store in Detroit’s Midtown on Cass Avenue.

“We’re proud to be part of a community that relies on the hard work, dedication and creativity of its people to continually reinvent itself,” Valade said. “The people of Detroit are rugged and resilient, which is a fitting description of our brand.”

Along with the new Detroit retail location, you can purchase Carhartt products at national retailers across metro Detroit, including Meijer, Gander Mountain, Tractor Supply and Sears.

2. Pewabic Pottery

Established: Detroit 1903

Pewabic Pottery is woven into the fabric of Detroit, and that fabric just keeps getting stronger and more vibrant every year, said Steve McBride, executive director of the homey studio and school that has been creating, displaying and selling handcrafted artwork — most notably tiles — for 114 years.

“We’re in the Guardian Building. We’re in the Detroit Institute of Arts. We’re in thousands of homes all across this city and beyond,” McBride said, referring to the Pewabic tiles that adorn establishments around the world.

He attributes the attraction of Pewabic to the exclusivity of its artistry. “We do something that is truly unique and distinguished.”

During lean times, foundation and donor support helped keep the pottery studio afloat. The influx of new residents and businesses and growing interest in Detroit are only adding to Pewabic’s mystique, noted McBride, who claims many of the city’s newcomers have a great appreciation for art and creativity. “People are looking for the real authentic experience, and you don’t get any more authentic than nationally historic landmark pottery that has been going strong for more than 100 years.”

3. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge

Established: Detroit 1933

If someone is anyone in jazz, they’ve probably played at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. Several famous faces, in fact, are pictured on the walls, or their names are written on lists. Among them: Stanley Turrentine, Roberta Flack, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

Eric Whitaker, who co-owns the lounge with Hugh “Bill” Smith III, recently recalled his favorite memory at the intimate 90-seat club: Not even old enough at 17 to officially be on the premises, he snuck in and took a chair. Soon after, the legendary Miles Davis walked in. “He took his hat and coat off, took his sax out of the case, nodded at the band and just started jamming,” Whitaker said. “It just sent chills up and down my spine.”

When the opportunity came in 2011 for Whitaker and Smith to own a piece of history, they didn’t hesitate. The two became the third owners of the club named for the original family that started it — Chris and Fannie Baker. The Bakers opened the location as a sandwich shop. Their son Clarence later turned it into a premier jazz spot.

“People come here for the food, the libations, the atmosphere and, first and foremost, the music,” Whitaker said. Whitaker welcomes the new businesses coming to the city.

“New businesses drive more traffic into the area, which can only enhance all of our opportunities,” he said.

In 1986, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office designated Baker’s a Historic Site, citing it as the country’s oldest continuing venue in which jazz has been played.

4. Henry the Hatter

Established: Detroit 1893

Not only is there genuine respect and admiration between the veteran owner of Henry the Hatter and the new kid in the neighborhood, John Varvatos, but they also have something else in common. Both have a star-studded list of followers.

Those who’ve topped their heads with hats from Henry the Hatter include comedian Steve Harvey, musician Kid Rock, former U.S. Rep. John Dingell and late Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young. Dwight D. Eisenhower even famously wore a Henry the Hatter entry at his presidential inauguration in 1953.

Owner Paul Wasserman recalls that when music superstar Hank Williams Jr. called his cellphone one day, he initially suspected it was a prank caller. “In my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be on a first-name basis with Hank Williams Jr.,” said Wasserman, who would go on to make two hats for Williams.

Wasserman said the keys to Henry the Hatter’s success are being in tune with customers, quality workmanship and knowing the product. He remembers his dad Seymour’s no-nonsense advice to always pay attention to what customers want and to show up to work every day. “We’re very selective about who we hire and instill from day one how very, very important customer service is.”

Henry the Hatter is named after original owner Henry Komrofsky. There is also a location in Southfield.

UPDATE: Henry the Hatter will be closing in August of 2017.

5. Garden Bowl

Established: Detroit 1913

What started as one of the city’s first major theater houses, designed by the famed architect Howard Crane, has blossomed into a five-business complex that houses a cafe, 16-lane bowling alley, pizzeria, nightclub and its enduring flagship establishment — the Majestic Theatre.

Garden Bowl (aka the 16-lane bowling alley) is home to Detroit’s original Rock-N-Bowl, where DJs spin tunes, disco lights flash and you bowl on lanes all aglow. In the 1920s, Garden Bowl was called the country club of the working man.

Today, it’s listed as one of MSN’s top 10 bowling alleys in the nation.

“The main thing that has kept us going is our ability to change and adapt and show appreciation for all our customers,” said 81-year-old Joe Zainea, who recently turned primary management over to his sons David, now president, and Joe, chef.

Zainea never considered leaving the city. Now, he looks out the window and sees evidence of Detroit’s rebirth in the recent grand opening of HopCat, a craft beer joint, and the renovation of several nearby apartment buildings. “Perseverance and community. You plant flowers, sweep the sidewalk and make sure you respect the people who come into your place.”

6. Better Made

Established: Detroit 1930

Better Made’s 87 years of progress have all been made in Detroit. People still stare through the windows of the Better Made factory to watch potato chips tumble from conveyor belts. It’s here in this local factory that a variety of chips and snacks are made and distributed — via online orders — around the world.

They’re so good that people who’ve left Michigan demand them. “It’s like a cult following,” said Cathy Gusmano, co-owner. “The ones who move away order online. When they come back to visit, they fill up their cars and take chips home with them.”

Gusmano’s dad, Peter Cipriano, and a partner started Better Made in 1930. Then, they sold one kind of chip in a small bag for a nickel. Even though the business is much bigger now, the original philosophy behind Better Made remains: “We’re not trying to be the biggest. We’re trying to be the best.”

Gusmano said despite offers to move elsewhere, they’re committed to Detroit and the community. “We feel like we belong here,” she said. “This is where my father brought us, and this is where we will stay.”

You can purchase Better Made-brand snacks just about anywhere in metro Detroit, from the big-name grocers and markets to the corner party and convenience stores as well as gas stations.

7. Simmons and Clark Jewelers

Established: Detroit 1925

Personal service, affordable financing and quality jewels first attracted people to Simmons and Clark Jewelers 92 years ago. And it is what continues to keep people walking into the downtown Detroit store today.

Started by two friends, Fred Simmons and Harry Clark, the business originally drew customers in the door with its can’t-lose payment plan: $1 down, $1 a week until you pay it off.

Now, Fred’s son George, 90, presides over the family-run business with help from son Michael, who said customers keep coming back because they appreciate the individualized attention, quality products and care they receive. “If there’s anything that needs attention, you can just call or come in to get ahold of us. We’re here,” he said.

For the Simmonses, the real joy of the business is being a part of important family moments. “You’re a part of great experiences of everybody who walks through that door,” he said. “A gift for the mother of a baby that’s about to be born, an engagement ring, an anniversary or a treat for yourself. All great life experiences that we’re able to recognize with beautiful jewelry.”

As downtown Detroit continues to attract new residents, Simmons and Clark is gaining new customers, too. Sales of engagement rings have nearly doubled in the last two years. “A number of people living downtown want to support Detroit-based businesses, and our prices are competitive with anybody, anywhere,” he said.

8. Corden’s Candy Carousel

Established: Inkster 1918

The sweet, unique taste and texture of Corden’s fine chocolates keeps loyal customers coming back year after year, said Nick Corden, whose grandfather and great-uncle started the homespun candy-making shop nearly a century ago.

“We never got into mass production,” he said. “We make small batches with fine ingredients, and that’s what makes the difference.”

Even when customers move away from metro Detroit, they call regularly and order Corden’s, noted the third-generation chocolatier.

“Whether they’re millionaires or auto mechanics who’ve moved away, when they’re in the mood for chocolate, they call us and we get it to them,” said Corden.

Corden’s offers a variety of fine chocolates, from handcrafted molded chocolate animals to chocolate-covered fruits and nuts and delicious coconut brittle.

9. Roma Cafe

Established: Detroit 1890

There’s a reason Roma Cafe looks like a house. It used to be a boardinghouse where men who worked at Eastern Market could get a room and a meal. The cook was so good, it became a restaurant in 1890, specializing as it does today in authentic Italian cuisine.

Janet Sossi Belcoure, the current owner, took it over from her dad, Hector, who at 92 still has a sharp eye. He makes sure the cafe maintains its high-class ambience, which requires wait staff to wear tuxes and tables to be covered with linen.

Belcoure said the secret to the cafe’s longevity — besides delicious Italian dishes — lies in family pride and customer care and appreciation. “We view our customers as part of our extended family,” she said. “Loyalty keeps people coming back in good times and bad. We’re seeing our fourth generation of some families.”

Keeping up with changing dining habits is also important. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t have vegetarian options,” Belcoure pointed out. “We make a great effort to respect diners’ preferences.”

Although many reasons and enticements to leave the city have presented themselves over the years, the Sossi family has stayed put. And it’s paying off. Belcoure is happy to see new businesses opening in or near Eastern Market and to watch as the market itself gets a makeover. “We always believed the city would come back and we’d be here to help make it a better place,” she said.

NOTE: Roma Cafe closed in July of 2017.

Small Businesses in Detroit

You’ve just read about some of the small businesses with huge impacts that started in Detroit, but now take a further look at this list of other established small businesses who have made a significant mark in Detroit. Additionally, Detroit is home to a mixture of hidden hotspots and retail with the potential to have a substantial influence on the city.

Dittrich Furs, Detroit and Bloomfield Hills, Established: 1893

“When someone walks through our door, you treat them like they’re coming into your living room,” said Hal Dittrich, fourth-generation owner of the premier furrier, which stocks more than 3,000 quality furs as well as an assortment of other accessories.

Cadillac Coffee, Troy, Established: 1888

Cadillac Coffee sells fresh-roasted coffee, iced and hot tea, cappuccino mixes, gourmet hot chocolate, pancake mixes and syrup, along with related items.

New Hudson Inn, New Hudson, Established: 1831

New Hudson Inn claims to be Michigan’s oldest bar. According to owner Chris “Stoney” Stone, “Everybody fits in at the New Hudson Inn. If you’re in a suit and tie or a tank top and jeans, you feel welcome. It’s an all-around good time.”

Detroit Chocolat, Sterling Heights, Established: 1919

Detroit Chocolat offers a wide assortment of quality chocolates — at least 100 varieties — and other goodies. Some items even pay homage to Detroit and Michigan

Milkins Jewelers, Wyandotte, Established: 1905

It’s your reputation that will see you through, said Douglas Milkins, president of Milkins Jewelers, which offers a full range of retail jewelry, with an emphasis on wedding and anniversary gems.

Detroit’s Hidden Hot Spots

Detroit’s great city and suburban finds, old and new, that are sometimes under the radar, but much deserving of patronage.

  • Bon Bon Bon in Hamtramck
  • On the Rise Bakery in Detroit
  • Our/Vodka in Detroit
  • 1701 Bespoke in Birmingham
  • Hot Sam’s in Detroit
  • Detroit Vintage Coffeehouse in Detroit
  • Just A Bit Eclectic Tea Shop in Detroit
  • Eli Tea in Birmingham
  • Green Space Cafe in Ferndale
Mentioned Attractions And Venues
  1. Carhartt
    5800 Cass Ave., Detroit, MI 48202313-831-1274 Highlight on map | More Details
  2. Pewabic Pottery
    10125 E. Jefferson Ave., Detroit, MI 48214313-626-2000 Highlight on map | More Details
  3. Garden Bowl
    4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48201313-833-9700 x20 Highlight on map | More Details
  4. Simmons & Clark Jewelers
    1535 Broadway St., Detroit, MI 48226313-963-2284 Highlight on map | More Details
  5. Dittrich Furs
    7373 Third Ave., Detroit, MI 48202313-873-8300 Highlight on map | More Details
  6. Baker's Keyboard Lounge
    20510 Livernois Ave, Detroit, MI 48221, United States313-345-6300 Highlight on map
  7. Better Made Snack Foods
    10148 Gratiot Ave, Detroit, MI 48213, United States800-332-2394 Highlight on map | More Details
  8. Corden's Candy Carousel
    313-565-2505
  9. Cadillac Coffee
    194 E Maple Rd, Troy, MI 48083, United States800-438-6900 Highlight on map | More Details
  10. New Hudson Inn
    56870 Grand River Ave, New Hudson, MI 48165, United States248-437-6383 Highlight on map
  11. Detroit Chocolat
    48901 Hayes Road, Shelby charter Township, MI 48315, United States586-566-8620 Highlight on map | More Details
  12. Milkin's Jewelers
    3160 Biddle Ave, Wyandotte, MI 48192, United States734-284-9044 Highlight on map | More Details