William F. Sullivan gazed out of his machine shop at the Chevrolet Transmission Plant on East Genesee St. in Saginaw and saw his ticket out of the shop.
He would build his own restaurant on the grassy vacant lot next door and realize his dream of actually becoming one of those men he witnessed from that very same window, piloting a sharp Buick down the street at 3 in the afternoon, puffing away at a big cigar.
People that knew him would say it wasn't about the money so much as it was the issue of 'being his own man.'
From that early beginning in 1946 Bill and his brother John built that first Sullivan's Restaurant essentially by themselves, hiring only plumbing and electrical work.
Sixty years later The Sullivan Family is celebrating that anniversary and still slinging the fish & chips that formed the mortar of their business, in addition to a whole lot more.
The germination of Bill's dream was partly inspired by the success his brother-in-law, Al Bergal had experienced in the Detroit area with his Suzy Q's restaurant starting in the late 1930s. His menu also focused on fish 'n chips & coleslaw carryout meals for busy families.
"My Dad got the idea from his Brother-in-Law," explains Pat Sullivan. "He had a fish & chips shop down in Detroit and was going gangbusters selling fish. It was the end of the war, nobody was doing anything like it, and people were ready to spend money. I remember the headline in the paper at the time, 'Freestanding Restaurant Now Open'. But my Dad was a cutting-edge kind of guy."
ill and his wife Helen's talents complimented each other well, with Helen handing the 'meeting & greeting' at the front of the restaurant, with her graceful social style, along with staff management and ensuring guests had the best dining experience possible.
Bill, Sr. recalls how "In the heyday, my Dad would sell 60 tons of fish a year. Cal Engler, from this fishery in Denmark, actually flew over to the United States just to see this operation in Saginaw, Michigan. He couldn't believe it and kept asking, 'Who eats this much cod?' He said, 'I have entire states that I service that don't sell that much cod in a year!' Needless to say, he and my Dad became good friends."
Judging by Bill's attire, one would not expect him to embody the image of a successful restaurateurs. In his worn khakis, work shirt, and lightweight jacket, dappled with paint & roofing tar, he more closely resembled the ubiquitous handyman, always in the background; fixing and fine-tuning whatever required his ministrations.
With his powerful, gnarled, yet skillful hands, there were little mechanical, carpentry, or other repairs beyond his ability. Only begrudgingly were the 'pros' called in.
"My father was smart because he would put a capital investment into the restaurant every two or three years," explains Jim Sullivan. "He always kept abreast of things. Once he went down to Florida and saw a Cedar Shake roof, which nobody had in Saginaw. He created this overhang and bricked the front and all at once he had a new place."
The operation also benefited from the employment of the six Sullivan children. Eldest son William, Jr (Bill), sons Richard (Dick), James (Jim), and Patrick (Pat); daughters Maureen & Sue.
Upon achieving adulthood, the sons continued in the business. Bill and his wifePhyllis opened Sullivan's Fine Food on Dixie Highway in Bridgeport in 1956, which they sold in 1968. In 1968 Richard opened Sullivan's West at 5235 Gratiotin Saginaw. Then in 1973 the sons build Sullivan's North at 3475 Bay. In the meantime, youngest son Pat had taken over the original restaurant upon the retirement of his parents in 1974.
Bill & Jim ran Sullivan's North for several years before turning the management over to Pat and his wife Hanny. Bill and his wife Phyllis tool over the reins of the original business, with brother Jim moving to Florida to enter the bump & paint field. Dick & Pat also opened a restaurant in Midland in 1977.
As they became old enough, generation 3 assumed management duties after plying their own time in the trenches. Grandson Timothy (Tim), son of William, J., assisted the family at both North & East locations before striking out on his own, first at theGolden Glow Ballroom in St. Charles. Dick's son Craig joined him in the operation on Gratiot, which they continue to run together today. Pat & Hanny were joined at North by son Pat, Jr.
As the economy of Michigan encountered tough times, so did the Sullivan restaurant family.
The original eastside location was the first to close in 1991, its clientele simply unwilling to patronize it due to its location in what was perceived to be a dangerous neighborhood. Closures at North in 1995 and Midland two years later furthered contracted the family's operations.
"It's a tough business," reflects Pat. "In the old days serving fish & chips was a lot easier, but today you have to be full service and give people everything. It's a different world today."
"My brother Dick is still operating after all this time, and I give him credit. There are no statistics on how many businesses make it to the third generation, because the percentage is small. Most kids don't want to work that hard for not that much money. I am glad that Tim stayed into it, because he is accomplishing a lot. You've got to love whatever you do and working 60 to 70 hour weeks."
"Most people can forget their jobs when they walk out the door, but if you own any business there's a lot of night you want to shut it out, but you can't. Even if you're successful, you've still got the headaches of operation. But I have no regrets."
Today, grandson Tim and his partner Tom Wood are tweaking the family business model into an expansive new contemporary context.
After moving on from the Golden Glow, where he specialized in hosting teen dances, Tim & Tom focused on racetrack food and beverage concessions and later branched out into the catering field.
They also acquired the F&B contract or Bishop International Airport in Flint, at the same time experiencing such remarkable growth in their catering operations that they required more kitchen & office space.
They bought the Black Forest Brau Keller in Frankenmuth, which was immediately rechristened Sullivan's Black Forest Brew Haus and Grill, and today have the capacity to produce 20-25,000 meals per day if needed for on and off-premise catering, or in-house dining.
"Tim's father keeps asking when I'm going to change my name to Sullivan," quipsBlack Forest co-partner Tom Wood, "but I keep telling him that I'm his adopted son. I started working at The Golden Glow when I was 15 years old, so I'm thankful for the opportunity they gave me."
Since acquiring the Black Forest, which prior to Tim & Tom's involvement had gone through four sets of different owners in a dozen years, the duo have expanded the facilities banquet, catering, dining, brewing, and entertainment operations.
Just as the family celebrates 60 years as purveyors of distinctive dining experiences, it seems fitting that Tim and Tom have been able to add the Sullivan name to that elite and all too small coterie of independent family restaurants that have endured through generations and bypassed the carnage of the 'chain mentality'.
As I sip one of award-winning master brewer Andy Rathaus' finely crafted beers, I ask Tim how it feels to be poised at his particular perch of the Sullivan history.
"For independent restaurants, statistically for every two that open, one will fail, so it's a pretty brutal business. Fortunately, we've been here for over three years now and the signals are strong."
"If there's a secret to our success, not only today but throughout the generations, it's that we believe intensely that you have to enjoy what you do or you might as well pull the plug."
"A positive attitude is very important. Plus we understand that you're only as good as the last meal served."
Here's lifting a glass to the future and many more meals.