Too often, you hear people talk about "the neighborhoods" in Detroit and say, "There's nothing there." While it's true that you will often find city blocks denuded of any of the buildings that used to stand upon them, there are also plenty of residents and businesses, should you look long enough.
One of those places would be Dan & Vi's, a pizza and sandwich shop on Chene Street, which is one of the most depopulated main thoroughfares in the city. It's joked about on the cover of their menu, in the phrase: "Who said there's nothing on Chene Street?" And it's a hit, especially at lunchtime. Should you drive through the maze of side streets at midday, wondering if you're going to find it, you'll soon be asking yourself where you're going to park. It's so busy, we had to pop a low curb and park in a dirt lot, available because Dan & Vi's is the last building standing on the block.
Things were much different back in 1989, when Bill and Marian Skinner bought the place from the original Dan and Violet, who had run the place since it opened in 1963. Dan had died in the mid-1970s, and Bill Skinner, who grew up on nearby Dubois, grew up working for Violet at the shop, making deliveries.
Marian Skinner recalls, "When Violet decided to retire, she gave Bill first bid on it, and it was a leap of faith, because just starting out, we were very questionable. 'Should we do this?' Bill kept telling me, 'I haven't done anything else but work for her.' So we said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' We jumped in with both feet, expanded the menu, changed some things around, and we just thank the good Lord every day and night that we're still here."
The decay in the neighborhood has been remarkable, of course. Perhaps no neighborhood has seen such dramatic decline as the one between St. Aubin and Mount Elliott, south of the freeway. In just 25 years, it went from an active, crowded Detroit neighborhood to a place where firebugs threaten the few remaining buildings. But the Skinners have stayed, largely thanks to Bill's connections to the neighborhood.
Marian says, "Honestly, he's known to everybody in the neighborhood, and we have people that come back in and say, 'I grew up on such and such street and I can't believe you guys are still here.' And I don't think a lot of them would come back if somebody else owned it. A lot of these people around here grew up with him. And now we're serving customers' grandchildren. We hear stories daily."
It may seem mystifying that so many people come into a small sandwich shop that sells pizza, wings, and subs, but Dan & Vi's has a specialty you simply can't find anywhere else.
It's called "the deli slice." It consists of ham, salami, cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and onion, with Italian dressing, layered between two pizza crusts seasoned with butter and Parmesan. It's basically a submarine sandwich that uses two pieces of pizza crust as its bread. Since the Skinners started selling it a decade ago, it has become a sensation.
Marian tells us that it was a friend of Bill's who came up with the idea, but "Bill improved on it a little, changed up the flavors. At first, it was real slow. People weren't used to it, but deli slices have just trumped everything else since. It's amazing, the way those things have taken off. We have huge companies that order from us. We don't advertise that much, other than the menu. But some people are addicted. We have people who wish we were open on weekends just for those deli slices."
Working the cash register, son Aaron Skinner says, "We get people from all over. They come to town to grab some parts from the plant and they park their 16-wheelers next door. We have them come down from Canada and up from as far as Kansas."
Apparently, the legit way to eat a deli slice is to peel away the foil as you go, since the foil helps keep the sides from spilling out the innards. Usually, the shop will toss in a packet or two of extra Italian dressing. These days, they even make a few different varieties of deli slice: turkey, club, veggie, and Hawaiian.
More than once, Marian praises her customers as "awesome" for helping keep the shop in business. It's obvious the Skinners really care about the neighborhood, and it shows in their loyalty to it. "We don't try to gouge people with our prices," Marian says. "I could easily take that deli slice out to the suburbs and get $5 for it, but we're just your average middle-class working family, and we know that those people out there are just like us, and I'm not going to choke people for lunch."
Dan & Vi's is at 5951 Chene St., Detroit; 313-924-6077.
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