Scene In Detroit: A Family Tradition
By Amelia Kanan, CBS Detroit Blogger
Once upon a time there lived a bakery (and deli). This special hidden gem of a place sat across the street from a liquor store and was surrounded by an all-too-familiar scene in Detroit — i.e. abandoned, boarded up houses next to vacant lots. This two-family generational bakery is now 40+ years old and run by the original owner’s son who is now a grandfather himself. I like to call him Mr. Old School Detroit Baker.
Yesterday morning, I walked into this painted brick bakery with a friendly and inquisitive attitude. I needed to find out why I couldn’t find one article (other than yelp reviews) written about its history or paczki. I quickly found out why.
When searching for information and doing a guerrilla style interview, I like to ease my way into it — feel out the vibe, try to be inconspicuous (which can be a very difficult thing for me) and observe the signs that could possibly get me my “in”. I smiled at a young girl behind the counter and said I was going to have a look around and figure out what I was going to get as I pulled out my camera. A short but mighty woman in a white apron and furrowed face quickly appeared and yelled at me. “No. No. No! The owner doesn’t want to be on TV,” I hadn’t muttered a word. “Oh. No. I’m not a TV person…but thanks for thinking that.” She didn’t get my joke and after an awkward pause and cold stare I felt uncomfortable. Do I abort? “Actually, I was wondering if I could speak to the owner?”
“Ehh, I don’t think so. He’s a very busy man.” My instinct was to apologize for bothering her and flee the scene, especially since this was a Hamtramck bakery on the day before the big show-Fat Tuesday. But, I gulped my overly intimidated lump in my throat and turned on the charm. With an extra crinkly eye-browed face and in the sweetest Amelia voice I could muster I said, “Oh, I’m sure he is but it would only be just a little minute”. Boom, within two minutes, a jolly mustached man was beaming at eye level in my direction. Meet Mr. Old School Detroit Baker.
I was happy, but so confused. Why was this man so sweet, while this woman– who turned out to be his wife — was so scolding? If you haven’t figured it out yet, he is this week’s photo. The three hearts? His daughters. The photo without a face? His gracious request to respect his privacy and anonymity.
I like to think it was my smile and sweet charm that got me behind the counter and into, not only his heart, but his kitchen as well. However, it was probably because I admitted to him that my blog viewership was well below average. “I promise your customer number will not change due to my blog post.” He laughed.
He brought me into his kitchen where carts of full trays of paczki lined the walls, piles of boxes for pre-ordered paczki filled the counters and his three daughters and wife ran around. The aroma was suffocating in the best way possible. I was listening to Mr. OSDB open up on a personal level when his youngest daughter handed me a piping hot plain pączek (the singular tense of paczki) to taste. I was in heaven and so grateful to be let into this precious kingdom of doughy goodness and inside family jokes.
Mr. OSDB told me about moving from the “the old country” (one of the Big 5) as an educated Tool and Die man with his parents and two sisters in the late 60’s. Their story resembles many local Detroiters in the sense of being an immigrant family moving to the city and opening a small business. The bakery and deli business officially became Mr. OSDB’s in the early 90’s and rose in success, becoming Mayor Bing’s No. 1 for sandwiches and lunches. This is when the music changes and things get sad. He was vague on the details but basically once upon a time he was the go-to man for many local companies’ picnics and events at Cobo Hall and then, in his words, “nothing.”
His business is still afloat but it’s not what it once was and because of that there are layers of bitterness and resentment, which explains the privacy. He and his parents’ life’s work has been burned, so fiercely guarding his privacy is his way of protecting what still remains. “Soon” he says he will retire but it’s his desire to find someone who wants to buy his history and continue the bakery tradition. This won’t be any of his daughters. Even though Mr.s OSDB’s three hearts were there on Monday baking and bubbling with jokes they have their own achievements, interests and degrees and only help out when it is needed.
Out of respect for Mr. OSDB’s contagious smile, his three hearts and sweetly protective wife, I’m not going to mention the name of their bakery because that isn’t the purpose of this post. This isn’t a review but rather a lesson. A moral to teach people to wander off the beaten path, don’t always opt for the most written about place and experience things with an open heart. However, if you do figure out this particular bakery-you won’t be disappointed.
Their sandwiches, breads and donuts are to die for and their history is one to honor, just like so many of our own families’.
Amelia Kanan is freelance writer/photographer and a returning native of Detroit. A graduate of Columbia College in Chicago, she wrote for an Emmy nominated sketch comedy show and pursued her passion for documentary filmmaking in Los Angeles. An incomplete list of her loves: books, human rights, improv, the smell of new shoes, talking to strangers, libraries, France, yoga, furniture, music, sociology and pushing the limits.