Detroit has always been a food town – a place where great eats equally matched the population that grew from fur traders to waves of immigrants looking to work in automotive plants to the Southern Migration. Every new Detroiter brought new recipes, a commitment to creating a world-class city and a better life.
The food entrepreneurs who set up shop in Detroit held those same values. They wanted to highlight the foods they loved, the recipes that came from their family ingenuity as well as set up a business that could support their families. Many of these companies grew to form dynasties that support their families and generations of workers, many of whom come right from the neighborhoods around the factories.
Some have shifted to non-family owners. Some have broken up into additional businesses. Some have the same owners that they’ve had since the turn of the century. But what they all have in common is a love for good food, for Detroiters and for the legacies they’ve created.
Here are some of Detroit’s favorite foods and the companies that created them. Most of these foods are available in local grocery stores. Others are available for carry-out right now. All are low-cost ways to get a taste of Detroit any day you want it.
Better Made: Since 1930, this brand has put together some of the best salty snacks in the city. The original founders – Peter Cipriano and Cross Moceri – built a snack-food company that hired women, African Americans, immigrants and anyone else who wanted a job for life. The loyalty for their chips, popcorn and potato sticks is real and their devotion to the city remains as its main location on Gratiot Avenue still runs day after day.
Buddy’s Pizza: The origin story of this pizza is as good as the product. A group of devoted chefs made pizza inside the very products that filled automotive factories: Those pans that make pizza crusts so crispy also are used in plants around the state. The Detroit-style pizza created here and in the restaurants spawned from the first Detroit location have fed Metro Detroit and beyond for generations.
Germack nuts: John and Frank Germack came to the United States as children, but they always missed the ingredients from their homeland. They started importing items they adored, including pistachio nuts. As the family grew, they started importing goods to Detroit to feed its growing population – at one point, Detroit had more than 2 million residents. Today, they still have a cozy store in Eastern Market that has everything from coffee to nuts to sugary treats.
Coney Islands: Every city has its own style of comfort food, and Detroit’s has to be the coney dog. The two restaurants most commonly associated with this hot dog covered with homemade chili, onions and mustard are American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island, located side by side in downtown Detroit. They’re rivals in the best way, and you cannot count yourself a Detroiter without having an opinion on which one is better.
Zip Sauce: This delicious steak sauce began with Mario Lelli, who owned and operated an Italian restaurant along Woodward Avenue in 1939. As the story goes, Lelli’s became a household name because of its famous Zip Sauce. Today, Michael Esshaki, who now owns the trademark to what he calls the original version, still provides this delicious sauce to those who want to order it online or find it in a local grocery stores.