Brooks Food Center: An Ypsilanti Institution

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Spring 2008,
Spring 2008
Original Images:






Author: Roger Brooks, with Wilfred Brooks

When Dan Brooks opened his new grocery store at 412 West Michigan in 1948, he and his sons, Wilfred and Thomas, were the toast of the town. The store employed the most up-to-date technology to offer perhaps the most complete line of grocery products and kitchenware in the city. Before long, many residents considered Brooks Food Center the place to go in Ypsilanti for quality meats, fresh produce, premium canned goods, and frozen foods.

Dan Brooks backs his delivery truck up to the front door of his market at 44 E. Cross St. which he bought from D. L. Davis in 1932, while an unidentified clerk begins to unload goods for the store.

Helping convey the notion that the store carried everything, small stacks of canned baby bees, chocolate covered ants, and rattlesnake meat were prominently displayed on the meat counter for all to marvel at and joke about. The new store included two floors of food and housewares-later consolidated on one floor-brightly lit with fluorescent lighting, and boasted a modernistic design that featured a porcelain-covered steel facade as well as Ypsilanti's first automatically-opening “electric eye” doors.

Within three years, Dan Brooks was named “grocer of the year” by Detroit's WJR radio personality Ron Gamble. A quiz show was broadcast from the store, and the word about the Brooks market spread around southeastern Michigan.

The 1950s and 1960s may have been the heyday of the Brooks market, but the connection of the Brooks family to the food business started much earlier. David Brooks (1747-1826), Dan's earliest identified ancestor, was a farmer in New Jersey who served in the Revolutionary War not as a soldier but as an assistant commissary general in charge of food procurement for the army. Long after the war, he bought a government lot near Ovid, New York, in the Finger Lakes region and farmed the land until he died.

His grandson, David Brooks (1794-ca. 1875), helped to incorporate the Livingston County (New York) Horticultural Society and the county Association for the Importation and Improvement of Stock. According to a county history, he was one of the association's agents “sent to Europe to select and purchase stock from the celebrated herds of the Old World.” His own shorthorns, including the noted bull John O'Gaunt and the cows Lady Rose and Dairy Maid, were widely admired.

David's son, Alexander Simpson Brooks (1817-1896), bought farm land in Oakland County, Michigan in 1839 and, following a wave of immigration to southern Michigan from upstate New York, moved his family there three years later. In 1849, he returned to New York and in a harrowing trip through violent storms brought pure blooded Durham cattle and Merino sheep back to Michigan. Although emaciated and the butt of jokes when they arrived, these herds flourished and, according to a county history, soon stood “ahead of any in Michigan.” Located adjacent to what is now Northville Downs, his farm also produced a thousand bushels of wheat annually.

“Helping convey the notion that the store carried everything, small stacks of canned baby bees, chocolate covered ants, and rattlesnake meat were prominently displayed on the meat counter for all to marvel at and joke about.”

Alexander's son, Henry Brooks (1850-1938), married Eva Long and moved to Ypsilanti to ensure that his children had access to suitable educational opportunities. He, too, was a farmer, and he kept a dairy herd. His milk route took him from his home on River Street to locations around the city. At times he drove his herd along Ainsworth Lane, now Oakland Street, coincidentally immediately adjacent to properties that his son and grandson eventually purchased.

Daniel R. Brooks (1894-1973) was the youngest of five children of Henry and Eva. When Dan was 11 years old, he was hired to clean out ashes from the furnace at D. L. Davis and Co. grocery store at 44 E. Cross Street, a few doors from the railroad tracks. The store was one of several that competed in the Depot Town area, including A & P and Kroger. At that time, Davis specialized in produce, dairy products, canned goods, and dry goods such as bolts of cloth. Over the years, Dan took on more and more responsibility at the store, and he saw the benefits and challenges of running a business.

Dan considered himself a modern person and he reveled in having a sense of control over his own destiny. He also liked having the latest inventions and bought a car as soon as he could afford it. The car gave him a reach beyond his home town, and he soon began paying visits to Hamburg in nearby Livingston County where he met Lottie Blades, a school teacher whom he married in 1917. They took up residence on North Street and soon had three children: Warren Wilfred Brooks (1918-), Thomas Henry Brooks (1921-1978), and Donald Elton Brooks (1923-1944). They also lived at 426 N. Huron and in later years at 525 Fairview Circle.

At some point in the 1920s, Dan took over managing the store as Davis edged toward retirement. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, Dan bought out Davis, and by 1935 the store became known as the Dan Brooks Market and later Brooks Food Market. In 1934, Dan expanded the business by adding meats (quality meats were later a major attraction at the store) and poultry supplied by Lee and Cady in Detroit. Eggs, fruit, and produce were mostly supplied by local producers around Ypsilanti, but Dan also drove a panel truck to the Eastern Market in Detroit to buy produce and fruit wholesale twice a week. Oysters came by parcel post from the east coast.

One of the handbills that Dan Brooks had kids drop on front porches in the 1930s.

Dan was a smart entrepreneur, but his formal education ended at 10th grade. His business was greatly assisted by his accountant, A. B. Curtis, who coached him about key business practices, and also by Gene Towner, an Ann Arbor businessman who helped teach him about marketing strategies. One sign of Dan's aggressive business sense was his use of weekly mimeographed handbills that informed potential customers of the store's offerings and advertised weekly specials. He hired youngsters to deliver the handbills door to door; dropping the workers off at the start of the route and picking them up at the end to make sure the sheets actually got delivered.

He also initiated a much appreciated four-times-a-day home delivery regime. In the beginning, a delivery man would handle orders from all of the local markets in Depot Town on a cooperative basis, but eventually it seemed that one or two stores were generating most of the traffic and the cooperation over deliveries ended. Dan's son, Wilfred, who ran some of the deliveries, remembers an unfortunate accident when the uninsured Brooks delivery truck was struck in the side by another vehicle. He also remembers being chastised by his father, somewhat later, for stopping to visit a special girlfriend on his rounds, a certain Sylvia Burrell, daughter of Mayor Ray H. Burrell, who lived at 912 N. Congress Street. She became his wife in 1939.

Business flagged in Depot Town in the mid-1930s and Dan Brooks decided to move uptown. In 1936, he bought land at 406 W. Michigan Avenue and built a new store. This was a step up from the place in Depot Town and represented the latest in grocery store technology. He continued to offer meats, now from Swift and Co., and kept offering the four-time-a-day delivery schedule.

Before long, the Brooks Market was selling frozen foods, an entirely new product line which had been introduced by Clarence Birdseye to retail outlets in Massachusetts on an experimental basis in 1930. Aimed at those who wanted fruit, vegetables, and meat out of season, frozen foods at first were a glamour product because until after World War II few households had refrigerators that could keep them frozen.

In a canny move, Dan Brooks also decided to keep his store open on nights and Sundays. This was a compromise against the demands of time with family, but it gave him an edge against his big competitors, which still included A & P and Kroger (which had relocated right across the street). Eventually, extended hours became the norm for groceries and many other kinds of businesses.

Yet another innovation at the Brooks Market was self-service. When the store was owned by Davis, customers were served by a clerk behind a counter who assembled requested items and totaled the bill. The new concept allowed the customer to browse through the goods, as if in a library with open stacks, picking out needed items themselves and maybea few things that weren't needed but looked interesting. It put the customer in the driver's seat, saved staff resources, and sold more merchandise.

The scale of the market grew slowly but significantly over the years. In 1933, annual sales (less sales tax) were $23,777. By 1939, at the new location on Michigan Avenue sales were up to $50,275, they topped $56,193 in 1944, and in the post-war surge they exceeded $72,546 in 1946.

Dan Brooks moved his grocery from Depot Town to 406 W. Michigan Avenue in 1936.

Dan Brooks appears ready for business in his newly constructed uptown store at 406 W. Michigan Avenue in 1936. Offering fresh meats and self-service, the market was on the cutting edge in southeastern Michigan.

Dan Brooks was named “grocer of the year” in 1951 on Ron Gamble's WJR radio program. A radio quiz, with give-a-ways, was held on-the-air.

Dan's oldest son, Wilfred, worked at the store as a youth, but struck out on his own for interesting work at Mackinac Island State Park for a couple of summers in 1937-38. Joe Thompson, the local Dodge dealer and chair of the state park commission, helped him land the job. Soon after their marriage, Wilfred and Sylvia moved to the Island, and Wilfred worked as Assistant Park Superintendent. Life was pleasant there in the frozen-in-time atmosphere that made the Island famous. The couple lived in the building outside the fort walls previously used as a morgue. Their first daughter, Joyce, was born there in 1939.

Dan paid for flying lessons for Wilfred and Tom, and they flew back and forth to help out at the store when needed. Once, lost in the fog, the brothers found their way back to Pellston by following railroad tracks. On another occasion, running out of gas, they made an emergency landing on the golf course of the Island's famous Grand Hotel.

The onset of World War II brought many changes. Store hours at the market were cut back and deliveries ended. Wilfred was classified 1-A by the Selective Service for a while, but received a deferment because he returned to Ypsilanti in the fall of 1942 to work in the store (an essential occupation). During the war years, he served in the Michigan National Guard. Tom, however, joined the Air Force and served in both European and Pacific theaters. Donald enlisted in the Army in 1943, trained at Fort Hood, Texas, and was sent to France following the D-Day invasion. He was killed in action there in August 1944.

During the war, Ypsilanti became famous for its role in war production. Among other things, nearby auto factories were temporarily retooled to produce B-24 bombers, and thousands of workers-many from the rural South-surged into the area to man the assembly lines. During the 1940s, Ypsilanti's population grew by a remarkable 51 percent. Ypsilanti's retail businesses, including the Brooks market, struggled at first to keep up with demand but ultimately benefited significantly from the area's growth.

After the war, the Brooks market-now known as Brooks Food Center-continued to thrive and soon outgrew the space at 406 Michigan Avenue. A small addition was made to the back, but it was inadequate. A new building was required, and the space next door at 412 Michigan was just right. The existing house was bought and moved by Wilfred's father-in-law, Ray Burrell, and, as previously noted, the new store was built in 1948. At the same time, the business was incorporated with Wilfred serving as president, Dan as Vice-President, and Tom as Secretary. The old space was used as a restaurant for a short while, then as a coin laundry.

“Yet another innovation at the Brooks Market was self-service…The new concept allowed the customer to browse through the goods, as if in a library with open stacks, picking out needed items themselves and maybe a few things that weren't needed but looked interesting.”

For many years, the Brooks Market entered a float in the 4th of July parade competition, and they occasionally won in their category. Here, in the late 1930s, Sylvia and Wilfred Brooks prepare for the parade.

With help from the Lee and Cady warehouse in 1951, a cooperative advertising group was formed among several independent grocers in Washtenaw County, including Brooks Food Center. This gave the participants an economical way to announce sales and special offerings in the local newspapers. It also allowed them to compete for visibility with the growing number of chain stores.

In order to promote better pricing through cooperative buying power, the Brooks' decided in 1960 to affiliate with Super Foods Services, a division of the Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA). The IGA brand further helped the market compete with the chains.

Dan Brooks had an extensive network of business associates and friends, including Fred Walton, Jack Willoughby, George Elliot, Alex Longnecker, Morgan Abbey, Fred Meyers, Jake Dieterle, and many others. But he had a mercurial temperament and sometimes crossed swords with his sons and even his own customers. More than once, after an outburst, his son, Tom, retreated to the local movie theater. But afterwards, Dan would joke and laugh as if nothing had happened.

If Dan brought big ideas and a network of associates to the business, Wilfred and Tom contributed steadiness, common sense, and a willingness to work long hours. Throughout the 1950s, Dan gradually reduced his involvement in store operations and formally retired in 1957. He continued to be involved, giving advice to his sons, and stirring up his popular mustard and radish potato salad, but he and Lottie spent more and more time traveling to favorites haunts like Mexico and Arizona. Meanwhile, Wilfred and Tom kept the store open from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm every day of the year, except Christmas. They split the hours and vacation time, and they alternated trips to national trade groups like the National Association of Retail Grocers of the United States (NARGUS).

By now, the sons had growing families of their own that made their days busier than ever. Wilfred and Sylvia had four children: Joyce, Roger, Nancy, and Sally. Tom had married Dorothy Hand in 1949 and had two children: Tom, Jr. and Susan.

The Brooks Market helped introduce frozen foods to Ypsilanti. Here in, 1951, Dan Brooks stands in front of one of the self-service coolers.

The market maintained a large parking lot at the rear of the store. At some point in the late 1950s the checkout counter was moved to the back of the store and the font door was no longer used as an entrance.

The Brooks Food Center team, Wilfred, Dan, and Tom, along with Wilfred's daughter Sally, ca. 1953.

Pat Murphy (left) and Russell Forsyth (right) were loyal employees at Broods Food Center in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Dan Brooks, Wilfred Brooks, and Tom Brooks at the 1967 grand opening of their new IGA Foodliner market in Petersburg.

Brooks Food Center at 412 W. Michigan Avenue as it looked in 1961. The coin laundry next door, 406 W. Michigan Avenue, was the site of the grocery from 1936 to 1948.

Through the years, Brooks Food Center was well served by several long-time employees, including Wally and Richard Shingledecker, Pat Murphy, Russell Forsyth, and Ken Mericle. Wilfred credits Murphy with teaching him how to cut meat. Forsyth was a member of the Ypsilanti Fire Department-later chief-and he was often called away from his duties at the market to fulfill his fire-fighting responsibilities. Mericle was known for his jaunty waxed moustache and his extensive collection of Kaiser-Fraser cars.

The business continued to thrive, so in 1967 the brothers opened a second store under the IGA banner in Petersburg. This was a major expansion, and it required a significant effort by the whole family. Wilfred and Sylvia made a special effort to become involved in that community as well as Ypsilanti. Sylvia helped out in many ways, including paying bills and doing payroll, although the formal accounting was still done by A. B. Curtis and Co. In 1982, total sales at the Ypsilanti store reached $1.32 million; Petersburg sales added another $1.15 million.

Robbers and thieves were a recurring threat to the Ypsilanti business. At one point, intruders climbed onto the roof at night, cut a hole, and lowered themselves into the store to help themselves. Like his father, Tom could be a bit short tempered, and he was especially irritated by shoplifters. Once, he chased a miscreant out the front door of the store and down the street, finally tossing a meat cleaver at him. In 1978, tragedy struck when gun-toting robbers entered the Ypsilanti store, demanding money. While Wilfred worked to open the safe, Tom sought to leave the store in disgust, and the nervous gunmen killed him.

Dan Brooks died in 1973 and his wife, Lottie, followed in 1986. Both Wilfred's wife, Sylvia, and Tom's wife, Dorothy, died in 2000. After Tom's death, it became increasingly difficult for Wilfred to run the business in two cities without a full working partner. Finally, in 1985, the markets in both Ypsilanti and Petersburg were sold and the corporation was dissolved. The Ypsilanti store, initially sold to Jin Moon, became a Korean market; today, it is operated as Dos Hermanos, a Mexican market.

For more than 80 years, the Brooks family served the Ypsilanti community through the food business, building a reputation for high quality products and customer service. One of the last major food-oriented family enterprises in town, the Brooks market made a lasting impression on the community and set a high standard for today's food emporiums.