Walk into the north entrance of the Gratiot Central Market to be enveloped on both sides by 100 feet of meat: pork, beef, lamb and chicken, probably more than you've ever been this close to. On the left there are some 500 slabs of spare ribs, 150 slabs of back or loin ribs, pork shoulders and loins. On the right, steaks, chops and roasts, as well as skewered kabobs of pork, beef, lamb and chicken. Perpetually seated on a stool, overlooking the action is Ronnie Bedway. At age 9, he started working alongside his dad and eventually bought the place in 1967. Ronnie's son Tom is now running the operation.
METRO TIMES: Are you the Rib King of Detroit?
TOM BEDWAY: I don't have any problem at all saying yes. Even the Grill King [Robert Felton] he's big in Detroit he buys his ribs from us. He was on Channel 2 last week. He said, "I get my meat from Ronnie's." There's plenty of competition, but, retail, we sell the most. We sell about 3,000 pounds on an average day, all fresh. If you want to see us really busy, come on down on Memorial Day weekend. We might sell 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of ribs. When people need a lot of meat for a holiday or a graduation or family reunion, they can't help but come down here. Plenty of people buy ten 30-pound cases at a time. Anything we sell here, we've ate and we've cooked. We can advise customers on the best way to cook our product. If you cook the best meat the wrong way, you can ruin it.
MT: What about lamb? You used to sell a lot of lamb 30 years ago. Do you still sell it?
RONNIE BEDWAY: Yes, but not like we used to. At one time there were three or four places in the Eastern Market killing locally. We could get everything we wanted. We used to sell several hundred lambs on a holiday weekend. We might go through 500 lambs. Today we don't have the killers or the processors. Eating habits have changed. The ethnic groups that bought whole lambs have migrated to other areas. Today we do a tremendous beef business along with pork.
MT: How has the Gratiot Central Market changed over the years?
RONNIE BEDWAY: At one point in time our business was contingent upon what the outside market did, what they drew. In the last 10 years we got independently strong on our own. We've developed our own following. As much as the surroundings have changed, the market itself is still basically the same. That's a big draw for us. The concept of the Gratiot Central Market is the same. Things have changed due to productivity and the food business over the years, so we're not doing the same things that we were doing 40 years ago. But that's mostly because of changes and processing. Eating habits have changed. For what we do, which is setting up over 100 feet of fresh meat counter in one building, that itself is a rarity, part of 300 feet of meat counter all in one building. That itself is a big draw. The things that we did well 40 years ago have remained the same customer service, fresh product, things like that.
MT: What about the whole Eastern Market? Do you think that the changes that are planned will have a positive impact on it?
TOM BEDWAY: It will definitely impact things if they do what they've planned. There've been plans in the past that never materialized. For 40 years we tried to get a handicapped ramp off the bridge. It took a rebuilding of the whole bridge to get it done. We even offered to build it and pay for it ourselves. But we're optimistic about the market. By essentially privatizing it, there should be changes for the better. The city gets bogged down. The new group should be able to get a lot done. The Eastern Market is a vibrant part of the city. On a busy Saturday, there are thousands of people down here Detroiters and suburbanites, all kinds of different ethnicities. Through wars and riots and fires and everything going down, there's always been two places in the city where people come together, Eastern Market and Greektown.
MT: Have people's eating habits changed?
TOM BEDWAY: People are more health conscious and have less time to cook. Pork is healthier than it used to be. It doesn't have to be well done anymore. What's better than a piece of pork on the grill? A loin chop a little on the rare side is delectable. People watch these cooking shows and get recipes off the Internet. If Emeril makes flat-iron steak, the next day we have people coming in looking for it. We've got it.
MT: Have you had any notable or favorite customers?
RONNIE BEDWAY: Coleman Young was a favorite down here. He was for the market. We make a special blend of ground meat for the Red Wings. They barbecue before each series. They're very health conscious. They like lean meat.
MT: Do you still sell whole lambs and suckling pigs and whole briskets, the stuff that serious cooks like to do?
TOM BEDWAY: We can get anything you want.
Jeff Broder writes this twice-monthly interview column for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]