Detroit is more than 300 years old, which means it has some veteran family businesses that have gone through the city’s many ups and downs. Not only do these companies help define Detroit to long-timers and newcomers, they serve as symbols of Detroit’s perseverance and, let’s be honest, stubborn nature.
There are firms like Barton Malow, which started in 1924 and has had a Maibach in its employee ranks throughout its history. Ryan Maibach, who now serves as the president and CEO of the Southfield-based company, says legacy businesses celebrate their past but never stop innovating, which allows them to continue well past their competitors.
“You draw on your legacy and history but you need to constantly reinvent yourself,” Maibach says.
Here is a look at some of the most iconic legacy companies around Metro Detroit, the families that started them, who runs them today and why they deserve recognition. After all, working with your parents, siblings and other relatives takes a blend of brains, robust communication and a kind of good-natured understanding that sometimes it takes a family to keep a business going strong.
1 - J.W. Westcott Company
J.W. Westcott. Photo courtesy Karen Dybis.
You may have heard of the boats that bring the mail to freighters and other ships along the Detroit River. This “reliable and dependable marine-delivery service” has been family owned since 1874. The company began when John Ward Westcott came up with a way to share important information with boats along the river. Westcott himself rowed out to the vessel from a dock on Belle Isle and threw messages to sailors using a rope and bucket. This process, called “mail in the pail,” became a way to not only communicate but bring items on board. Over time, its services grew to include delivery of just about anything from letters to pizza to flowers. J.W. Westcott began the official U.S. Postal Service mail boat in 1948 and earned the world’s first floating postal zip code: 48222. Known as the “7-11 of the Great Lakes,” the J.W. Westcott delivers in rain, snow, sleet or anything else. James M. Hogan, great-grandson of J.W. Westcott, became president in 2010, maintaining the same family as owners for more than 140 years.
2 - Starlit TV
Starlit TV. Photo by David Lewinski.
Television has been a key part of American culture since this amazing device became an affordable distraction for most U.S. households after World War II. But, like any piece of electronics, tv sets broke and needed repair. That is where Jim Collias came in. He started Starlit TV in August 1960 and began fixing anything that came in the door of his St. Clair Shores shop. When Jim wanted to retire, he passed the shop along to his two sons, George and Pete. Since then, the business has grown to several locations and to include repairs of everything from tablets to smartphones to, of course, flat-screen smart televisions. They’ll even do house calls (but there is a $40 fee). Walk-in repairs are welcome and they’ll fix anything while you wait. Starlit’s longtime motto, a battle cry for environmentalists and television purists alike, resonates even today: “Fix it. Don’t pitch it.”
3 - Lachman & Company
Metro Detroit well deserves recognition for its dedication to hard work, and Lachman & Company has been doing exactly that for more than 125 years. This family-owned business, now in its fourth generation of ownership, creates custom awards and executive gifts, all designed to give this working-class city the credit it deserves. President Carrie Lachman now runs the business, which began in 1893 in Detroit. Back then, watchmaker Joseph Lachman started the company as a jeweler. Then came Sol, followed by Philip. Now based in Southfield, Lachman & Company under Carrie’s management is growing and has gone online to find new customers around the United States. Instead of watches, Carrie leans toward offering well-made awards, high-end gifts as well as glass and crystal offerings to catch the eye of any passing business looking to honor their workers with something well-made and lasting – just like the Lachmans themselves.
4 - Bates Hamburgers
Bates Livonia. Photo by David Lewinski.
Livonia’s collective arteries are forever affected by its proximity to this ultimate slider paradise known as Bates Hamburgers. The family-owned business has been serving piping hot little burger to happy eaters since 1959. The local favorite is owned by John and Barbara Bates; it was John’s father Noble who opened and ran the restaurant with his wife Laura for many years before his son joined the business. These days, John and Barbara have a legacy of their own. Their daughter, Laurie, serves as the general manager and one of their sons, Brian, works at the Nine Mile location in Farmington Hills. The Bates family, who is hosting their 60th-anniversary party in February, say they are proud to be one of Metro Detroit’s legacy businesses because they care about their employees, the community and future generations of burger lovers.
5- McCabe Funeral Homes
The very term “funeral parlor” started because people once held end-of-life ceremonies for loved ones in their homes or front parlors. When these rites of passage moved out of the home and into central locations, the McCabe family was there to help. In 1893, Francis J. McCabe opened his first funeral home in Detroit at Cass and Grand River avenues. Today, the family has two locations: One in Canton Township and another in Farmington Hills. Kevin McCabe, great-grandson of the founder, grew up much like his father and grandfather, helping with the family business. Kevin admits he once thought of a career in politics, but became a licensed funeral director after his father, L. David, suffered a health scare. He graduated from Wayne State University’s School of Mortuary Science in 1981. His wife, Sandy, is Administrative Manager of McCabe Funeral Homes, Inc. As a diversion from his profession, Kevin more than dabbles in magic.
6 - Dittrich Furs
Most people know this longtime retailer from its television commercials – picture women in luxurious furs skiing down a mountain like an Olympian. Over the scene, a man crooned, “Dittrich Furs…from the Dittrich family.” Indeed, Dittrich Furs has been a family-owned business since 1893. It is now in its fifth generation of Dittrich ownership, giving it the claim of being Detroit’s oldest family-owned business. It all started in February 1893 when Emil Dittrich, a furrier from London, opened a small, second-story wholesale shop on Witherall Avenue, near Trapper’s Alley. Emil bought pelts directly from the trappers and made them into scarves and collars for wool coats. It wasn’t long before he had a thriving retail business in addition to his wholesale operation. After World War I, Dittrich Furs outgrew its original location and moved to the Fisher Arcade on Woodward Avenue. Emil and his three sons, Francis, Harold E. and Alfred operated the business until it moved to its third location on Grand River in 1928. Dittrich Furs remained at the Grand River location until 1965 when freeway construction mandated another move, this time to its current location on Third Avenue. Harold E. Dittrich brought his three sons Robert, Donald and Harold M. into the business. Harold M. was Chairman of the Board for over twenty years and remained active in the business until his death in 1996. The new generation of Dittrichs continually modernized the inventory selection, providing the latest in high-fashion and designer name garments, including merchandise designed by the Dittrich’s themselves.
7 - Hagopian
Haroutun “Harry” Hagopian was a Renaissance man of sorts – the Turkish immigrant came to the United States in 1921 and worked as a dishwasher, auto-plant employee and perfume manufacturer in Detroit to support his family. His expertise in chemistry led him to create an industrial cleaning products company. When a customer asked Hagopian for help removing ink from a favorite rug, he successfully removed the stain and launched a rug-cleaning and, eventually, a carpet-dyeing business. In the late 1940s, the company moved to Oak Park and added Harry’s three sons – Stephan, Edgar and Arthur – and daughter Ilene to the business. Hagopian & Sons became the gold standard for rug cleaning, and by the mid-1970s, Edgar was running the business solo. He renamed it “The Original Hagopian,” and became known for his expertise in designing, selecting and cleaning rugs. The Hagopian expertise still reigns in Metro Detroit with Edgar’s son, Edmond, now running the business and opened multiple locations, including a Birmingham showroom. Edmond and his sister, Suzanne, and other family members have worked with the Detroit Institute of Arts, College for Creative Studies and the Ford estates on special projects, maintaining their reputation for chemistry, art and carpet knowledge for a third generation.
9 - Two Way Inn
Two Way Inn. Photo by David Lewinski.
Every year, local watering holes argue about which one is the oldest bar in Detroit. That is when the Two Way Inn reminds all of us that it has been slinging drinks to Detroiters since at least 1876. The former Prohibition speakeasy claims to have the longest run of legally – and illegally – selling drinks for more than 140 years. It all started with Colonel Philetus Norris, who set up the bar with its infamous two entrances (hence the name…). Since then, the site has gone through a variety of uses from jail to general store to brothel. Mary Aganowski is the current caretaker for the Two Way Inn, and her family has had it in the family since when her father, Harry Malak, bought it. Mary has helped run the place since she was a teenager, and her home cooking and friendly family makes the Two Way Inn home to people of all ages and backgrounds. As a classic dive bar where you have to be buzzed in to enter, you never know who will show up for Sunday brunch or just a seat at the bar. And that is the fun of going to the Two Way Inn, which calls itself a “fine dive” because of its welcoming and affordable culture. According to rumor, Colonel Norris still visiting for a drink now and again, so keep an eye out for this affable spirit among the spirits.
10 - Frank Rewold & Son
Frank Rewold may not be a household name, but he was a master carpenter who created a legacy of hard work and craftsmanship for three generations of his family. The company started in an unusual manger – Rewold took a job as the personal handyman of John and Matilda Dodge Wilson, when they build their 1,400-acre estate known as Meadow Brook Farms. Rewold did everything on the estate, and he taught his son, Roy, all the tools of his trade. Today, Frank Rewold & Son is a multi-million dollar construction company in Rochester with its fourth generation of ownership still creating unique projects and making Metro Detroit a beautiful place to live and work. Since 1918, the company has fixed, built and conceived of many well-known buildings including the Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, area colleges such as Oakland University and high-end hospitality businesses such as the Royal Park Hotel. Roy’s son, Frank, began working with his father in 1973; he became CEO in 2009. The fourth generation, represented by Frank’s son Jason, joined the company in 2017.
11 - Better Made Snack Foods
Better Made Potato Chip Company. Photo courtesy Karen Dybis.
What would Detroit be without a family-owned enterprise like Better Made potato chips? The legendary snack-food company is run by the Cipriano family, whose father Peter started it with his 50-50 partner, Cross Moceri. Legend has it that Pete and Cross were classic opposites – Pete was conservative and made sure the company always used cash to pay its bills whereas Cross loved to give product away and hoped to someday expand outside of Detroit. They settled their disputes by hiring a manager to keep the votes legit. Today, the seven “shareholders” of this privately owned company include Pete’s three kids and their children. Since the late 1940s, they have operated a retail store and factory on Gratiot in Detroit, making popcorn, potato sticks and their oh-so-good potato chips.
12 - Barton Malow Company
The Maibach has been a part of Barton Malow since 1925. That is when CEO Ryan Maibach’s great-grandfather, Ben Maibach Sr., joined the company as a carpenter. His son, Ben, came on board in 1938. Ben Maibach III was added to the roster and named president in 1981. Ryan says he never assumed his role at the company, which was founded by Arnold Malow and Carl Osborn Barton to help build Detroit during its boom years of automotive manufacturing might. The best part of working at the family-owned business based in Southfield is having that history combined with the understanding that a company needs to change to stay relevant within its industry. Ryan Maibach traveled the country to stay in touch with employees and trends, making sure Barton Malow grows with the times while never forgetting its past. “We continue to focus on our core business but also invest in new offerings that have the possibility to disrupt our industry,” Ryan says.