Can Saginaw-Based Small Businesses Survive Tough Times? Here Is a Look at a Quartet Along a Single West Side Intersection

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 710   By: Mike Thompson

02nd September, 2010     0

Evidence of hard times is abundant across Saginaw’s near West Side. The tide of housing decay can be seen spreading from the Mason/Woodbridge one-ways toward Michigan Avenue and the river, and a number of former neighborhood stores are boarded and abandoned.

But a beacon of hope shines at the intersection of State and Bond. At each corner, four grassroots enterprises are surviving, if not always exactly thriving: Clark Hardware, Farmers Market, Spatz Bakery, and Fast Lane Drive Thru.

If CNN or Fox News or msnbc were plotting a news feature on “making it in the 2010 economy,” they could do no better than to send their crews to this outpost in Saginaw’s near northwest section.

Each of the enterprises has its own original story, but the bonding point is that all serve their customers at a grassroots level. None of them has received any sort of grant or small business loan – government assistance instead is going into the surrounding area, with the so-called Covenant Area a target zone for the City Hall’s $17.6 million economic stimulus program for housing and neighborhood improvement.

If each of us as citizens wants to maintain our community, we will support our neighborhood businesses. When we look more closely at the intersection of State and Bond, as a model, we will discover that this does not necessarily involve “sacrifice” on our part, such as foregoing Wal Mart’s “always low” prices. We will come out ahead.

Let’s take a quick little tour:

Clark Hardware
When I visited, Mary Seelhoff, co-owner with her husband Kim, was giving personal attention to a customer. She had out a tape measure to provide 20 feet of bungee cord that she was rolling off of a spool, similar to a garden hose. Elastic bungee cord is used to hold items and covers in place.

The customer, a middle-aged woman, tells me she has visited the big-box stores but they do not sell bungee cord by requested length.

“This is where I come whenever I have a unique need around the house,” the woman says.

My own personal experience is with Clark Hardware’s lawnmower repair shop. Once, during a neighborhood cleanup project, I borrowed a friend’s heavy-duty Toro to tackle high grass and weeds at an abandoned home. The Toro stalled and quit, putting me into a temporary panic. I lifted the machine into my car trunk, imagining a huge repair bill. Had I blown the mower’s engine or what?

Kim Seelhoff smiled at my distress, reconnected the spark plug wire free of charge, and sent me on my way. He could have kept the Toro overnight and ripped me off for a Benjamin to “fix” it, and I never would have known.

Such integrity seems rare these days.

At Clark’s, they tune up my own putt-putt mower for about $20 each spring, blade sharpening included. If a porch window has shattered glass or a screen has a hole in it, they can fix things up like new.

“When you come into our store, right away somebody will greet you,” Mary Seelhoff says. “We have a knowledgeable staff, and if we can’t find the right product for you, we will send you to where you can get it.”

I tell Mary that if they were not so good at maintaining my old mower, they probably could sell me a new one.

“We are honest with our customers. If it’s going to cost $100 to repair a $150 lawnmower, if it’s not worth repairing, we will tell you,” she explains.

Other family-owned hardware stores have moved to the suburbs, and competition from Home Depot and Lowe’s is endless.

Mary Seelhoff estimates that 50 percent of Clark’s clientele are neighborhood residents, 20 percent are transplanted suburbanites who return out of loyalty, and 30 percent come from local work crews or are landlords.

“The big boxes are known for ringing you in at a low price on a particular item, but if you shop around the store (for general merchandise) then the prices are higher,” she says. “Through Ace Hardware, we are able to run some pretty good sales.

“There is also a price to be put on convenience and time. With us, you don’t have to drive to the township, and we have somebody to help you get the right product the first time, without going back and forth three times.”

Farmers Market
In a different scenario, this neighborhood grocery could have become just another one of those party stores that seem to sell nothing but liquor, beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets, with cans of soup and Spam along the aisles mostly for decoration.

Five years ago, Farmers Market purchaser Hardip Singh had something different in mind. He opted to maintain fresh fruits and vegetables, along with a grocery section. Prices are competitive with the supermarket chains, sometimes less expensive. Tomatoes sell for 99 cents a pound.

“My family is from California. We were looking around Michigan for a place to establish a business, and we looked at 25 to 30 stores before we ended up in Saginaw,” Singh says.

“This store was a great opportunity for us because of the hours, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. It allows us time to spend with the family. If you have one of those party stores, you have to stay until 2 a.m. every night. It’s not easy.

“We try to keep our prices competitive, with good service and a friendly atmosphere.”

Farmers Market maintains a full-service meat department. Customers may notice that the chicken wings are “normal” size, rather than being bloated through artificial means to the supersize found in Tyson packages at supermarkets.

Singh invests in a butcher staff. One of his butchers, Paul Harshma, says the product is superior to found at Wal Mart.

“We cut our own meat,” Harshma says. “As far as I know, their meat is cut in Nebraska or some place, and it has a three-day shelf life before it gets to their stores.”

Spatz Bakery
As one of Saginaw’s oldest family-owned enterprises, Spatz Bakery could stay in business no matter what the conditions of the neighborhood, simply by shipping loads of bread to supermarkets. However, the bakery remains open to walk-in trade at the State Street store at Bond.

“We have our loyal base of customers,” says Marcia Mattfeld, Spatz Bakery general manger. “We’ve been here for years, and everybody keeps coming back.”

She notes that the “loyal base” is older in age, and that as people pass away or enter care homes, “the younger generation hasn’t grown up with this kind of merchandise.”

Mattfeld emphasizes the selling points of an in-person visit.

“When you come to the bakery, the bread is fresh out of the oven, only one or two hours old,” she says.

“The baked goods all are made from scratch. Nothing is pre-made or frozen. Once you try them, you will never go back to the packaged stuff that is full of preservatives. We’re hoping that as we get people hooked, they will keep coming back.”

Fast Lane Drive Thru
When owner Carl Hesse with his ZZ Top beard greets you with a gravelly “What would you like today, Boss?” or “thank you, Boss” there’s nothing wrong with his throat.

It’s his carnie voice, developed from eight youthful years touring with carnivals. He can turn the voice on and off.

As for the “boss” part, Hesse explains, “I was a psychology student in high school, and one of the things they taught us is to use a term of respect with people. It could be ‘doctor,’ or whatever. But I choose ‘boss.’ ”

Fast Lane employs 11 workers on various shifts. They approach customers while waiting in line, making sure that the drive-thru lane truly is fast and efficient.

Still, Heese takes a moment to speak with as many as possible.

“You get to know all of them by name, even if you can only spend 30 seconds per day,” he says.

He tells folks that Fast Lane Drive Thru is on Facebook. He finds out about weddings and kids graduating in the neighborhood, and often attends the festivities.

Similar to the other State-and-Bond business owners and managers, he says maintaining good business is a challenge. He points to both flights from the city and the sour economy.

“I still have the same amount of customers,” Hesse says, “but we’ve gone from making a lot of $8 to $10 sales, to sales that are $4 to $6. There are fantastic people in the neighborhood, and we can survive a couple or three years of this, while we are hoping things will get better, sooner or later.”


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