Michael Pemberton has owned Frank's Cafe in Wyandotte for nearly two decades. He's ridden a poor economy, the smoking ban, and the rise of social media and smartphones — all factors that make running a bar in 2016 a little more difficult than when he purchased the place.
But Pemberton has managed to stay in business thanks to three main tenets that he follows religiously: employing an excellent staff, staying consistent, and remaining simple.
It doesn't hurt that he's managed to build a deep and abiding relationship with both the neighborhood and his regulars.
Frank's Cafe can be found on the corner of Sixth and Forest, in an old house that was built soon after the end of the Civil War, according to Pemberton. He says he gleaned this historical information from the married couple — Cass and Mary Jelinski — who sold him the bar all those years ago.
While the structure itself started out as a farmhouse, it didn't officially (and legally) become a bar until Michigan repealed Prohibition in 1933. In fact, Pemberton says Frank's Cafe was issued the third liquor license in the state following Repeal Day.
Since then, the watering hole has seen peaks and valleys in business and reputation. Starting in the '40s it became known for serving fish fry dinners to factory workers and their families. That tradition continues today. Bartender Vicky Hunter says she's cracked open many a beer for workers who stop in after their shifts to pick up some deep-fried perch and fries for their family before heading home.
"The people that come here, they've come here since they were kids," Hunter says.
Remember those three tenets we mentioned earlier? It's the second, consistency, that has made those dinners at Frank's Cafe a family tradition.
"People still come here for a good bar burger or a good fish fry, and that's a dying art," Pemberton says. "I handle every piece of fish. I prep every piece. I de-scale and de-bone each piece. I do it the same way Mary showed me before I bought the bar."
While those fish fries and burgers bring families to Frank's Cafe, the place is known around the neighborhood as a place to stop in for a drink whether it's 11 a.m. or 1:30 a.m. It's the place neighborhood men use as a hideout from their wives, and Pemberton has led at least one out the back door in order to escape down the alley and into their garage.
Frank's is a cozy place, both in personality and aesthetic. The interior is nothing fancy, but it's clean. The walls are lined with horizontal wood paneling that Pemberton says was installed in the '40s. Behind the bar, the original wooden back bar still survives to hold a host of modern liquor bottles. Above the bar hangs a sign that reads, "Frank's Cafe: Continuing a Wyandotte tradition." In the fridge you can spy bottles of Bud Light alongside craft beers from Atwater and other Michigan breweries. The place has other modern amenities like a digital jukebox, some flatscreen TVs, and lottery, but we have reason to believe that those things aren't what keeps people coming back to Frank's.
"Someone will always say hello and goodbye," Pemberton says. His shoes are off and he's walking around the bar in his socks, after being soaked in a downpour during his morning errands. "This is a place where we don't care what you wear or what you read. This is a place females say they feel comfortable coming here alone, they feel safe. People feel safe here."
Frank's Café is closed Sundays, and is open 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Friday, and 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, at 3852 Sixth St., Wyandotte; 734-283-4660.
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