The Past, Present and Future of Ernie’s Market in Oak Park
(Cheryl Weiss, March 18, 2016)
Oak Park, MI – With the Jefferson Oaks development project in Oak Park beginning this summer, rumors have been circulating about Ernie’s Market. Will Ernie’s building be demolished to make way for new construction? According to owner Ernie Hassan, that rumor is not true, at least not now.
For generations, Ernie’s Market has been the place to be. In a small, nondescript building, people wait in line, often for over an hour, to get one of his huge sandwiches with extra “love”. They know they will hear Ernie’s enthusiastic “Hey, Baby!” greeting, a sandwich made for them as they watch, and maybe a handful of Hershey Kisses. They chat with Ernie as he prepares each sandwich, catching up on news; he knows them, he knows their families. Much has been written about Ernie’s unique personality, and the numerous awards he has received, including the distinction of Best Sandwich in Metro Detroit every year since 2008. But there’s more to the story than that.
If you look around at the photos, the letters, the memorabilia adorning every available space on the walls in Ernie’s Market, you can almost step back in time and imagine the stories each one could tell. Black and white photos, yellowed newspaper clippings, and faded signs indicate decades of connections. Displayed prominently is a letter and photo of Ernie’s parents from 1955. Ernie’s was once a grocery store, then it became a meat market. The original meat locker is still there with the original wood door and brass handles, a timeless testimony to earlier, simpler days in Oak Park. This is where Ernie grew up; originally his grandfather had the store, then it became his parents’ store, and Ernie first worked here as a stock boy when he was young. Old-timers still call him “Little Ernie”, he recalls with a smile. Now Ernie is a grandfather.
He still buys fresh meat, cheese, and vegetables early every morning, chats with the bread delivery guy who brings rolls to Ernie before the store opens, and they share a doughnut or two from the box at the end of the counter. All day, Ernie slices meat and cheese, builds huge sandwiches seasoned with love, and builds relationships with customers who become family. “Hey Baby, how’s your mom?” he asks a young woman who approaches the counter. As he slices, they catch up on news about her family. A few minutes later, “Hold out your hand,” he says to a little girl with her mom at Ernie’s for the first time. As she hesitantly stretches her hand up to him, he fills it with Hershey Kisses, and they exchange smiles. He makes everyone feel special and loved, because he genuinely cares. “It’s not a business to me,” Ernie said. “The customers make decisions; this is their store. And it’s my dad’s store…I’m still running my dad’s store,” Ernie stated.
“Will I sell if they offer? Where am I gonna go? Stay home with the wife all day?” Ernie reflects on his possibilities for the future, shaking his head. “But we don’t know what tomorrow brings. I have no intent to sell, but if I’m offered, I might say okay…if it’s better for Oak Park, and if it will help society as a whole.”
Ernie has been a part of the Oak Park community all his life. “I try to make Oak Park number one!” he enthused. “Oak Park is the best! The best police force, a great mayor, and it’s the center of everything.”
Over the years, there were a few challenging times for Ernie as a business owner. More than once his store was broken into during the night. However, one time when it happened, Ernie said he has so much confidence in the Oak Park Public Safety that after they called to let him know about the robbery, Ernie went back to sleep. Oak Park Public Safety called him back a while later to ask if he was coming to the store, and he said, “No, you are handling it. I’ll be there in the morning.” Thinking back on that incident, Ernie mused, “When do you have that kind of confidence?” But he does, because he knows Oak Park, he loves Oak Park, and he trusts the Oak Park Public Safety Department to keep everything secure.
Ernie does not live in Oak Park, although he wanted to. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, his wife, Lois, wanted them to buy a house. Back then, the houses in Oak Park were too expensive, so he bought in another city. But his business is here, and his heart is forever here.
“We want the best for Oak Park…Ferndale…this area. You want to uplift the community. This is where it’s at, and if Ernie can be a part of it…” He continually seems to shift, first considering a new life of retirement, taking more vacations with Lois, then discards the idea as he remembers how much each customer means to him, how his life is and has always been about Ernie’s Market.
“I know generations of people,” Ernie said reflecting back on years of memories in this small Oak Park store. Years ago, parents would call him to say the kids are coming in after school. Ernie would welcome them, and line them up by the bread rack until their parents came to pick them up. It was safe, it was the way things were done in this little community where everyone knew everyone else, or seemed to. And if Ernie needed anything, the people were there for him too. The public, his customers, became friends. Whatever someone needed, within reason, he would do it. If he couldn’t, he would get help. But Ernie would not turn away from someone who needed him. Sometimes that led to experiences Ernie will never forget.
One couple met in line at Ernie’s, dated, got engaged, and wanted Ernie to become ordained so he could perform the marriage ceremony. That was a request he never had before! He didn’t give them an answer right away, but slept on it. The next day, he decided, “I’m not messing with God! I’ll feed them, but I’m not going to marry them.”
So many people are devoted to Ernie and his famous sandwiches. He recalls one hot summer when a woman was pregnant, and stood in line for an hour. She finally reached the front of the line, then collapsed, falling to the floor. Ernie put her in a chair, wheeled the chair to the cooler, and called EMS. She recovered, and all was well.
Until… the next time she was craving a sandwich from Ernie.
Again, she waited in the summer heat in line for her turn, passed out, spent some time in the cooler, EMS checked her out, but she wouldn’t leave until she had her sandwich! No matter how sick she was, Ernie recalls, she wouldn’t leave without her sandwich. “We’re not a regular sandwich show,” he stated.
It’s not only Oak Parkers or Ferndalians who gather at Ernie’s. It’s not just Metro Detroiters either. Once people hear about Ernie’s, they make it a destination. People come from Canada and all over Michigan to see Ernie and have one of his sandwiches. Ernie shared that he has heard that when former Detroiters living in Chicago meet other Detroiters, they know about Ernie’s. It’s a connection, a shared memory, and a tradition.
One of the challenges Ernie faces is that because he is at the market all day, he is unable to leave for events, even though he may want very much to attend them. “There are very few times I’m not here,” Ernie said. “Lois makes me take more vacations. If I die tomorrow, I haven’t been around my family as much as I’ve been around everyone here. I’ve been around Ted longer than them.”
Ted Duncan has been coming to Ernie’s for 50 years, ever since he moved into the area. Ted’s seven sons have worked there. When Ted’s wife passed away, Ernie felt terrible that he couldn’t be at the funeral; they were good friends, but Ernie had to be at the store. So what happened? After the funeral, the family came to Ernie’s for sandwiches, memories, and friendship. Later, without his wife, Ted sat home for two years, missing her. Then, when his doctor insisted that he had to start exercising, he started walking to Ernie’s three days a week on his mile walks. The friendship remains strong to this day.
Some of Ernie’s experiences will definitely remain in his memory forever. “There was one man who came in regularly. So nice, but an alcoholic and a doper,” Ernie remembers. Ernie decided he was going to get him out of that life. He spent time talking to him, and encouraging him to turn his life around. One day, while Ernie was at the store, he received a phone call from Providence Hospital, asking if this guy worked for Ernie. “No,” Ernie said, “he doesn’t work for me.” Well, the man told the staff at Providence he did, and he needed to be picked up from the hospital. Ernie’s son worked at the market at the time, so Ernie sent his son to the hospital to pick him up. “My son came back, eyes big as saucers. I asked if he picked the guy up, and my son said yes, he was in the car, but … he had no clothes! He was in the car with no clothes on! I sent my son to Old Navy, which was there at 9 and Woodward then, to buy clothes with my credit card.” The man passed away not long after that situation, the years of alcohol and drugs taking its toll on his body, but the memories remain. He needed help, and Ernie made sure he had a ride, clothes, and knew he had people in his life that cared about him.
Ernie’s is so much more than a sandwich shop, and Ernie is more than a store owner. This place he has continued to nurture, built on love, is a home of miracles and connections. In fact, Ernie has ten albums at the store filled with photos and memorabilia collected over the years. Every one is a story.
The best story Ernie remembers is one about a man who came in one day with his young children. The man said that he remembers coming to Ernie’s all the time when he was a kid. Like so many others, Ernie and his store was a huge part of his childhood.
Then, one day, his parents got divorced, his world changed, and he went to live with his dad. They moved out of the area, and not only did this young man lose touch with Ernie and his neighborhood friends, but he also lost touch with his mom and grandma.
Now, as an adult with children of his own, he wanted more than anything to find his mom and his grandma, so he came back home to Ernie’s, hoping that maybe Ernie could help. Well, Ernie knows everyone and everyone knows Ernie, and Ernie did remember where the grandma had lived all those years ago. In time, though, she moved away too, along with the mom, and Ernie didn’t have any idea where they were now. But Ernie always helps people if he can.
Ernie didn’t know how to find them, but he got the word out among the regulars who had lived by the grandmother, asking them to help to reunite this family. One neighbor talked to another, who talked to other neighbors. Leads were shared, information was passed on, and hopes began to build that this community might be part of a dream come true. And eventually, it happened.
Ernie found the man’s grandma on Harsen’s Island, and his mom was living in California! Thanks to Ernie, this family was finally reunited after many years apart, and they spent time together on a vacation. His children were able to meet their grandmother and great-grandmother. These women, who hadn’t seen their son and grandson in so many years, were able to give him a hug, spend time with him, and get to know his children.
The man brought in pictures of the reunion to show Ernie, and to thank him. After years of wondering and searching, four generations were brought together. It was miraculous, and it happened because of Ernie.
Ernie’s Market is so much more than the huge sandwiches, the Hershey kisses, the “Hey Baby!”, the fist bumps, and the Love Sauce, although all of that is Ernie. It’s about the love. Love that brings people together, love that finds connections that reunites long lost family members, love that creates stories that touch the heart.
When Ernie was the Grand Marshall of the Oak Park Independence Day Parade in 2014, it was an honor that meant the world to him, and to his Oak Park family. Ernie recalls that the driver of his car in the parade said no Grand Marshall ever had such a response from the crowd. Everyone loves Ernie, and Ernie loves everyone. The love is real, and it continues to grow.
Eventually, though, someday the doors will close. Ernie and Lois’ two children have lives of their own which do not involve the market. His son is a lawyer; his daughter is a stay at home mom. Working long hours, doing everything from choosing the fresh vegetables and meat every morning to slicing meat for hours, to cleaning up at the end of the day is a lot for Ernie. Lois considers the options. “If we could get some help, we could stay. He’s getting tired. If someone could slice a couple hours, that would help. But he can’t do this without more help. This is what makes him happy; he has no hobbies. He worked 6 days a week until he was 60.” Lois is a retired teacher who spent 43 years in the classroom; now she helps Ernie at the store. She insisted that Ernie works shorter hours, and he has. Now, Ernie and Lois are looking to hire a cashier, a clerk, and a slicer. They want someone who wants to learn the business, someone who is willing to help them, so that Ernie can continue to provide love and the best sandwiches in town for years to come.
Ernie’s is located at 8500 Capital, Oak Park, 48237.
The Past, Present and Future of Ernie’s Market in Oak Park