Melvindale's eclectic small businesses make most of a small city with big heart

Nestled in a small building with a green awning on Allen Rd. is a family-run bakery with a passionate following. It's called Jack's Italian Bakery, and it's been enticing customers with its tasty mix of baked goods and sweets for more than three decades now.

 

According to co-owner John Favazza, pepperoni rolls and donuts are Jack's biggest sellers. The shop also makes various cookies, cannolis, and other pastries, as well as breads and traditional Italian fare like pizza and lasagna.

 

"The customers we get and the customers that appreciate our being open, especially during this time, are mostly people who want to get something for a cheap price that'll fill you up," says Favazza.

 

When his parents first launched the bakeshop around thirty years ago, they were initially located in Taylor. But the Favazzas were eventually persuaded to relocate to their current spot on Allen Rd by a passionate group of customers from Melvindale.

 

The business gets its name from John's father, Jack, who sadly passed away during the early part of the pandemic.

John Favazza at Jack's Italian Bakery Melvindale. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

Jack's owners adjusted to business during the COVID-19 outbreak by installing plastic sheeting around the counters, requiring employees to wear masks, and restricting the lobby to three customers at a time. Although many food-based businesses have struggled during the pandemic, things have remained relatively stable for the Melvindale Bakery. In fact, they've remained open throughout the entire pandemic.

 

"When it was really bad, things got really slow," says Favazza. "We kind of just hung around. Made our few things for the day. We were closing early. 2 o'clock. But slowly but surely things got slowly back to normal."

 

When the health crisis first became a big issue in March, Jack's owners felt obligated to stay open to make bread for local businesses, including some sub shops, which they supply. The unfortunate closing of another nearby bakery has also helped to bolster their clientele during this time.

 

Going forward, Favazza is still trying to figure out what the shop is going to do regarding social distancing for Paczki Day in a few months, which is the one time a year Jack's gets really big crowds. But he figures they'll cross that bridge when they get there.

 

While Jack's would like to do a little more baking and expand, they're currently a small shop with about five employees, and they've had trouble finding extra help. But, despite that and the pandemic's unpredictability, the Favazzas don't plan on doing anything else anytime soon.

 

"We're keeping it going for the foreseeable future," says Favazza. "I like what we're doing, and people always appreciate what we're doing. So we're happy to keep making bread and pastries as long as people keep buying it."

 

Little City, Big Heart

 

The Favazza's positive experience in Melvindale seems to mirror the municipality's slogan, "The Little City With a BIG Heart." More broadly, Melvindale is a small city with a lot going on.

 

"The city has light industrial businesses, Marathon Corporation, DTE Energy, railroads, small family-owned businesses, and is also a bedroom community," says Richard Ortiz, Melvindale's City Administrator and Finance Director. "Shopping within the city, you’ll find eateries, auto accessories and sales, furniture, hardware and repairs and other service stores for glasses, builders, and advertising."

 

That's a substantial amount of activity for a city that's just 2.76 miles in size, with a population of a little over 10,000 people. Part of this, no doubt, boils down to location since the Wayne County city is located at the crossroads of an industrial corridor running between Detroit, Chicago, and Toledo, Ohio. With its proximity to I-75, I-94, and the Southfield Freeway, Melvindale is well-situated as a connector between Southwest Detroit and the Downriver area.

Oakwood Cafe in Melvindale.

 

Melvindale got its start as an area known as Oakwood Heights, conceived as a place for workers from the nearby Ford Rouge plant to live. The municipality receives its name from Melvin Wilkinson, one of the original planners who worked on the development. Detroit annexed the eastern section of Oakwood Heights in 1922, the same year Melvindale was incorporated as a village. It became its own city ten years later in 1933.

 

The municipality's fortuitous location fueled its growth during the boom years of the 1940s and 1950s. Its legacy as a crossing point for industrial transit can still be felt by the longstanding presence of its Norfolk Southern Railroad depot and several other rail lines that cross through the city. Several trucking companies also have bases of operation in Melvindale. And the proximity of Southeast Michigan's auto industry, Canada, and shipping commerce along the Detroit River have contributed to transit's important role in the local economy.

 

While transit and the auto industry certainly still make their presence known in Melvindale, the city is also notable for its smaller enterprises, particularly in its downtown district along Allen Rd between Outer Drive and South Dearborn and Oakwood Blvd. between I-94 and Lenore St.

 

The area is home to numerous mom-and-pop type businesses. Among these are long-standing establishments like Gleno's Market and B&K Collision and watering holes like Triple Crown Sports Bar, Hops and Barley bar and grill, and White Rhino Sports bar. These businesses that reflect Melvindale's diverse population—a mix of whites, African-Americans, Latinos, and Arab Americans—like La Favorita Tienda Mexicana, Sabina's Polish Restaurant, Las Cazuelas Grill, and Almarwah Market.

 

There's also Play@Atlantis, the 33,000-square-foot arcade and family fun center found at 19400 Allen Rd. The oceanic-themed entertainment complex is overflowing with activities to try out: video games, billiards, air hockey tables, and bumper cars, even a roller coaster simulator. While the arcade remains open during the pandemic, it's worth noting that all their machines are cleaned regularly according to CDC standards.

Atlantis in Melvindale. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

According to Ortiz, the presence of so many independent businesses in Melvindale is no quirk of fate.

 

"Melvindale is a family-oriented community that has been evolving for generations. Any visitor will feel the hospitality and generosity from both residents and businesses," he says. "Because of this environment, many small businesses succeed and are supported by the community."

 

Pizza Hotspot

 

Fredi, the Pizzaman's pizzeria, is another of Melvindale's memorable small businesses. Located at the corner of Clarence St. and Allen Rd., it's part of a long-running local pizza tradition. The lunch-focused sit-down restaurant is owned and operated by Fredi Bello, a 34-year veteran of the pizza industry whose father ran Bello’s pizzeria in Inkster.

 

“I was six years old when my father started,” Bello says. “He taught me everything I know, and I followed his footsteps.”

 

Fredi's specializes in traditional New York-style pizzas. Customers can order whole pies or slices and a variety of breadsticks, salads, calzones, pasta, and goulashes.

 

While it definitely has a devoted following Downriver, the pizzeria has also been getting attention in wider circles. Bello appeared on the cover of PMQ Pizza Magazine last May and is also known for the work he does through his autism awareness foundation, which provides schools with equipment for sensory rooms, which are designed to help calm and focus children on the autism spectrum.

Fredi Bello, The Pizzaman in Melvindale. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

Bello, who's been in the pizza business himself for 29 years now, originally ran an establishment in Dearborn Heights but moved his establishment to Melvindale fourteen years ago. He's quite happy he did too.

 

As with most businesses, the last few months have been up-and-down for Bello. Sales have been down about 50 percent lately since most of his customers from nearby businesses are working from home. That said, Bello seems to be rolling with the punches reasonably well.

 

"Overall, it's been fine," he says. "I dropped down to four days a week, and I'm happy with it. I'm waiting until things get back to normal."

 

Although the pizza shop shifted to all carryouts for a while, Bello is now allowing dine-ins again. Though to be safe, he's only allowing customers to come in at about two-fifths capacity. And while his autism foundation had to cancel a bowling fundraiser in April, it's still as dedicated as ever to helping young people in need. Bello is staying positive and focusing on making his top-notch pizza for his customers.

 

"I've been so prepared for the last ten years that I kind of am where I am with it. Pandemic or no pandemic, I'm really happy with my restaurant."

 

Retail, Great Recession & Pandemic

 

Running a small business these days isn't without its share of challenges. Melvindale Hardware has been operating in the city of its namesake since 1936, a remarkable accomplishment during an era where big box stores and online shipping have upturned yesteryear's retail world.

 

Family-owned, Melvindale Hardware is a well-organized shop that carries all the tools and hardware essentials one could expect. A long-standing pillar of the community, the hardware store has sponsored little league baseball for youth at the Melvindale Athletic Club for many years.

 

Owner Ken Mills, who grew up in Melvindale and has been with the shop since 1989, loves keeping his local and mostly older clientele well-versed on things like the advantages of LED light bulbs.

 

“I like talking to people,” he says. “It’s a great town, and it’s been great to me and my family over the years.”


Ken Mills, Melvindale Hardware.
 

That said, he admits running a retail business in this day and age isn’t always easy, noting that a lot of Melvindale shops have fallen by the wayside in recent years. The Great Recession hit Melvindale’s retail sector hard, Mills says, adding that a new strip of restaurants and chain stores known as “The Hill,” located off Oakwood Boulevard in nearby Allen Park, has also adversely affected businesses in his part of town.

 

“When they built the Hill up there, it changed the traffic patterns, he says. "There used to be accidents [over here] all the time with so many people turning right at Burger King. That doesn’t happen much anymore.”

 

Things haven't quite been the same since COVID-19 hit southeast Michigan either.

 

To keep himself and others safe from possible coronavirus exposure, the hardware store owner has installed a plastic barrier by the counter, limited the number of customers allowed in the store, and washes down his shop's door handles every hour.

 

The flow of business has changed too. Mills says it's been challenging to keep the product in stock due to supply chain issues. Although he's not exactly sure why that is, he speculates it could have something to do with how the pandemic might have disrupted just-in-time shipping. As for his sales, things are down again after an initial uptick.

 

"It was busy when people had stimulus money and extra unemployment money, but it's slow now," he says.

 

However, Mills feels there could be a silver lining in the pandemic's dark cloud for small businesses that can stick it out.

 

"We've seen a lot of new faces because people are buying local more. It's not just one day a year; it's all the time. Maybe people just feel safer."

 

Moving forward

 

Despite the Great Recession's challenges and the pandemic, there are still many positive developments on Melvindale's horizon.

 

Ortiz is excited about plans for a 3.3-acre project on Dix Rd near Oakwood Blvd, which tentatively includes a mixed-use area of residential homes and commercial spaces. Peerless Metals is also moving into a facility at 18900 Rialto St. once owned by Del Ray Steel. That's slated to open sometime this fall.

 

Beyond that, Melvindale is working on a plan to market a 3.5-acre development site on Palmer St. and Outer Drive. Melvindale's Downtown Development Authority is also partnering with the city as it updates its master plan to align strategies for the future development of the community's downtown.

Fredi the Pizzaman. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

All and all, there's a lot to look forward to in Melvindale, a turn-of-events Ortiz credits to long- time residents and businesses who've stuck with the city during its periods of hardship.

 

"This mature community is resilient," he says. "Through recent difficult financial times, the community has worked together to emerge and build a foundation for future generations."

 

Read more articles by David Sands.

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