Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township are full of restaurants so well-known and well-loved that they just feel like part of the scenery. But there's a unique story behind the owners, employees – and, of course, the signature recipes – at each one of them. We tracked down the owners of three beloved Ypsi eateries to learn the history behind their businesses and the secrets to their success.
Gabriel’s Cheesesteak Hoagies
The famous – and award-winning – cheesesteak recipe at Gabriel's Cheesesteak Hoagies goes all the way back to when original owner Al Gabriel first started cooking up ribeye steak in his basement in 1959.
The restaurant, which won Detroit A-List's "Best Sandwich in Detroit" award in 2013, still serves cheesesteaks and more to about 300 customers a day. It's still located in its original home at 2585 E. Michigan Ave. in Ypsi Township. Gabriel’s opened an additional restaurant in 2007 at 1919 Wayne Rd. in Westland; a previous location in Saline has closed.
Al Gabriel continued cooking for the restaurant until he died in 1992. Daniel Menna then purchased the restaurant, making it the second restaurant Menna's family owned after Bill’s Hot Dog Stand, another Ypsi Township stalwart.
Gabriel's focuses on high-quality product, good customer service, and a fair price. Donald Ballard, who has managed and co-owned the restaurant for 14 years, says he still receives compliments on Al Gabriel's hoagie recipe today.
Ballard says customers keep coming back because of the restaurant's high-quality service. He says he stresses to his employees that the restaurant "can have good food, but if they have a bad attitude, (the customers) aren’t coming back."
Some customers come in four to five days a week. Others travel as far as an hour to pick up their hoagies.
The restaurant has also expanded to offer Gabriel's original recipe at other locations in the community. Gabriel's brings its food to the University of Michigan Hospital twice a week, giving employees and visitors the opportunity to have a variety in food options. On Fridays, Gabriel’s can be found at CS Mott Children’s Hospital.
Ballard and his team have built close relationships with their customers over the years. Ballard says he has been able to see his customers raise their children, who now come to the restaurant on their own. He knows some customers right down to their schedules and their regular orders – like one regular named Bob.
"As soon as Bob’s truck pulls up, we already start what he wants because he’s going to the Ford plant," says Ballard. "He’s on a schedule. By the time he comes in, we’ve already got his cheesesteak ready (and) his bag of chips and large Pepsi sitting on the table."
Full House has been serving up the dish it describes as "the only burger in town" for 45 years.
However, hamburgers aren't the only culinary option at Full House, 57 Ecorse Rd. in Ypsi. The restaurant also offers sandwiches, fish, chicken, salads, hoagies, and more.
Full House owner Mike Fox says his key values for his restaurant are speed, quality, and sanitation. In addition to his restaurant's legendary burgers, customers may also appreciate Full House's variety of entertainment options, including Keno and old-fashioned video games like Galaga.
Fox has developed staff who've gone on to roles at other legendary Ypsi restaurants. The current managers of Bill’s Hot Dog Stand, The Bomber, and Gabriel’s all worked at Full House before moving on to their current positions.
Many Full House employees have worked there for decades, a fact that Fox chalks up to the fact that the restaurant pays well. Fox says his employees start at slightly above minimum wage, and move up from there if they perform well. One employee has been working at the restaurant for 31 years and another for 27 years. Fox’s goal is to make sure his employees' jobs never get boring, so he trains everyone in all duties at the restaurant.
Traffic is consistent in the restaurant throughout the day. Fox says there used to be specific lunch hours every day due to the surrounding factories in the area. After those factories shut down, the restaurant's rush hour became an all-day situation. Now the weekdays and weekends are equally busy. The restaurant also hosts birthday parties and, unfortunately, wakes.
Fox claims to be the oldest working restaurant owner in Washtenaw County, and he has taught classes and workshops about being a small business owner. He has managed other restaurants, including the now-closed Taco Bell on Washtenaw and TC's Speakeasy on Michigan Ave. Fox says he realized that he likes to be hands-on in a single restaurant, which helps ensure smooth operation.
Fox has led a long list of community service projects. He has donated to and helped raise funds for local churches and schools, along with sponsoring local athletics. He says he gives his all "because I can, not because I have to."
Cuppy’s Best Soulful Cafe
The idea for Andrea "Cuppy" White's restaurant started when White's home-cooked meals drew so many positive reactions that she began considering the idea of making a profit off of them.
White opened Cuppy’s Best Soulful Cafe eight years ago at the encouragement of her former husband. She was set to open the restaurant in the former Bottle and Basket Market at 2404 Lakeview Ave. in Ypsi Township. But at midnight, the same day White purchased the building, her vision was abruptly shattered when the building burned to the ground. After examining the damage, she and her former husband questioned if they should move on or if they should continue to pursue the goal.
White persevered, and her restaurant has gone on to become a new local favorite. She initially opened a takeout-only location on Michigan Ave., but customers requested a dine-in location. White then relocated to her current spot at 1451 Ecorse Rd. in Ypsi Township. The restaurant offers seafood, chicken wings, pork, ribs, hamburgers, and sandwiches along with a variety of sides.
White has done multiple community outreach projects, including feeding the homeless and doing a backpack fundraiser in Ypsilanti to prepare local students for school in the summer. White and her employees purchase the backpacks themselves to distribute to community children. The restaurant also hosts a coat drive for local kids, allowing customers to place their donations in a box. Both the backpack and coat drives have been in partnership with Parkridge Community Center.
White hopes to eventually create a franchise of restaurants, with locations in Detroit, Flint, Ann Arbor, or Detroit Metro Airport. However, she's also content with how far she has come as a black business owner. She thought she might never walk again after being the victim of a drunk driving accident in 1995, and she says she thanks God for how her business has been able to thrive.
As a black business owner, she says she's received negativity from people who don’t want to see her restaurant succeed.
"You have people who will try to block your blessings," White says. "They will come in and they will threaten to call this or that person on you, just because they see you doing good. They don’t want to see that."
White says her extensive family helps her to overcome that negativity. She encourages prospective black business owners to follow their dreams.
"They can always tell you that you can’t, but God says you can," she says.
Chanel Stitt is an Ypsilanti resident and a junior at the University of Michigan - Dearborn pursuing her bachelor's degree in journalism.
Photo of Cuppy's food by Andrea "Cuppy" White. All other photos by Patrick Dunn.