A daughter takes over the family market
by Jan Schlain
"I came back from vacation," recalls Sherry Knight Bedolla, "and they said, 'You're moving over there.'"
"They" are her father, Ray Knight, and her brother Don-founder and manager, respectively, of Knight's restaurant on Dexter Avenue. "There" is Knight's Market at Miller and Spring streets. And Sherry, who's been at the restaurant for most of the last twenty-five years, is back at the family's first business-the small neighborhood store where her father went to work in 1941.
Ray Knight was a student at Slauson Junior High when he started at the corner grocery. After graduating from Ann Arbor High, he joined the service. In 1952, he came back from the Korean War, bought the business, and married Mary Devine.
Sherry is their third child and only daughter. She and her brothers-Bob, Jeff, Chet (Ray Jr.), and Don-grew up with the market.
"I remember coming in when I was really young," Sherry says. "I loved it." In 1967, the family bought a house next door to the market on Spring, and as the children got older "we worked every day after school-it was expected of us."
When her father bought the bar and restaurant across from Vet's Park, he made all the kids co-owners-and once again put them on the front lines. "He opened on a Monday," Sherry recalls. "Fifteen minutes before opening, he called me and said, 'Where are you?' I said, 'What do you mean, where am I?' He said, 'You're waiting tables!' I said, 'I have two kids!'" But she went to work.
"Dad was always the boss," she explains. "Mom was, too."
Last year the family got to talking about updating the market. "I just happened to say in a conversation, 'That sounds fun,'" Sherry remembers. And when she returned from her trip, the fun began.
Fifty-seven years after Ray bought it, Knight's Market is still a nondescript gray box outshined by the mango yellow Big City Small World bakery across the street. There's no sign, just a frieze of tiny horse-head
silhouettes. They're chess knights-the logo that Ray has used since the restaurant opened to tie the two businesses together.
Sherry stands in the center of the store, between the freezers stuffed with Stouffer's and Pepperidge Farm frozen dinners and desserts, and the refrigerators on the other wall, housing the milk, cheese, and produce. She's full of ideas about how to make the market more contemporary and efficient. "We need to update the refrigerators," she says. "These are probably at least thirty years old. We are losing a lot of cold air."
Currently, the meat is cut in a closed-in cold room in the back of the market and put out wrapped. Sherry would like to have it displayed in a service counter. "There are so many better ways to [do] produce and dairy," too, she says.
For years, Ray was the butcher, and Mary handled sales. Bob (Bobby to his family) took over as head meat cutter after the restaurant opened, and it's now a huge business in its own right: Sherry says they handle about fourteen tons every month. "A lot of it is burgers and bulk beef to, like, thirty-five restaurants in town," she explains. "Ours, Casey's, Fraser's, Red Hawk, Café Marie, Dimo's, Banfield's . . . We are real picky about what we get." That won't change.
What may is where the sides of beef are aged. Currently the meat is kept in a trailer behind the market by the Ann Arbor railroad tracks. City officials have at various times provided differing opinions about whether the Knights can build an addition back there, but the latest word is that they can. So they're thinking about eliminating the trailer and expanding the market building to the railroad embankment.
"Fish," says Sherry, emerging from the immaculate cold room in back. "We don't have enough room right now to do fish properly. We have very good fish people at the restaurant, and they can help us with that."
Another big change is to bring in more prepared foods from the restaurant. Don Knight already is sending over soups, chili, quiches, brownies, cookies, and dinner rolls-"we are selling forty to fifty dozen [rolls] a week already, so that's really taking off," he says. Eventually they'll also have main courses, "like Plum Market, Whole Foods, Papa Joe's in Birmingham."
Since Sherry took over last summer, she's started stocking Metzger's German potato salad and Angelo's raisin bread. Recently, she added Monique Deschaine's local Al Dente pasta and Marvelous Sauce.
With just 2,000 square feet, the toughest part is making space for all the new items. "That is one thing I am working on," says Sherry, "what can we cut out. . . .We talked for a time about getting rid of all of the groceries [to] focus on meat, produce, and dairy. But it's really hard," because customers like to be able to pick up basic items, too. "People say, 'I can't believe you have this!' People like to get in and get out-they don't have to run to the grocery store."
Mark Hodesh of Downtown Home & Garden may be disappointed to learn that Knight's no longer stocks two sizes of Grape Nuts. But that's a minor upheaval compared to the shock he got late last year, when he stopped at the market on his way home from work. "They gave me a free cup of Obama Blend coffee!" Mark told his coffee buddies at Sweetwaters the next morning-astonished, because everyone knows Ray is a staunch Republican.
It's a Tuesday lunch hour at Knight's restaurant, and Don Knight is working the front, taking names and showing people to their tables. The place is packed, noisy, and smoky.
Ray is sitting at the round table by the bar all alone, except for his ashtray, pack of Vantage cigarettes, and bottle of Budweiser. He's wearing his beige suit and fedora, and waiting, as he often does on weekdays at lunchtime, for his card-playing buddies to show up for a euchre or pinochle game.
Ray was still working for the market's former owner, Al Scharbat, when he began courting his best friend's younger sister. "And then I went to war, the Korean War," Ray recalls. When he got back, he and Mary were married at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church. Mary was twenty-one and working at Argus Camera Company. She quit when she got pregnant with Bob, and when she went back to work, it was at the market.
"I paid about $5,000 for it," Ray recalls. "That didn't include the property. I bought the property in about 1955 or '56.
"I own all the properties," he adds. "I have another restaurant too, in Jackson," called Knight's Steakhouse & Grill. Don oversees both restaurants. Chet (Ray Jr.) does all the maintenance for the three family establishments. Jeff, an attorney, is president of the family corporation. Don calls him "the boss." But the family knows who the real boss is.
Ray still sports a Rolex on one wrist and a big diamond ring on the other hand. When he drove, he says, he "always had Cadillacs." But at eighty, his leg gets numb, so the only driving he does now is shuttling a golf cart between the restaurant and his and Mary's home two doors down on Dexter. Sherry and her family have the house in between.
Seeing some of his oldest, dearest friends die has taken its toll on Ray-as have decades of drinking and smoking. But he's still the patriarch.
"Dad? No, he hasn't changed," says Sherry. "He has remained very much in charge. It's his way. He has mellowed a little bit. But he still has his hand very much in the business. He will look through the bills." One time, he was convinced huge jars of olives were disappearing. Sherry figured it was just because more people were ordering martinis-but for a while, Ray had the kids lock up the olives with the liquor.
Ray's watchful eye, Mary's devotion, and the kids' hard work and varied skills have all paid off. Ray says the businesses have no debt, except for "a loan on a couple of the properties for tax purposes. . . .We have plenty of cash." It'll take more than a financial meltdown to undo what he's built.
"He started out with very little," Sherry says. "And he is very careful with money. He watches what comes and goes."
Sherry admits that all the kids have "bumped heads" with their father at one time or another. "It's very hard to work day in and day out with family," she says with tenderness. "I think we do a really good job of all getting along. Where I feel like we lose out a little bit is we don't get together otherwise, except on holidays . . . It is hard when you work these crazy hours."
Not that she's complaining. "We are very fortunate," she says. "It supports all of our families."
Sherry married steelworker Phil Bedolla in 1977. Their three daughters are now in their twenties. Lindsay and Liz work at the restaurant, while Heather is a teacher at Willow Run Elementary. (Sherry has a teaching degree, too, though she has never used it.)
While the Knight businesses have sheltered most of the family from Michigan's economic hurricane, Phil Bedolla is right in the eye of it. He's worked for U.S. Steel since he was nineteen-but now, at fifty-two, he's being bounced from plant to plant around the country. Recently, he's worked in Texas and then in Arkansas.
With their youngest, Liz, at Eastern Michigan University, he needs the job, and he's too young to retire. So he's been going where he's sent and coming home when he can. When Phil can't get away, Sherry's been taking trips to see him. But with his job situation so volatile, they wouldn't move elsewhere permanently. They're rooted here.
"My kids are so funny," Sherry says. They tell her, "You own a restaurant, but you never say that to people. You always say it's Grandpa's restaurant."
"I say, 'Well, that's how I feel.' It's still his thing. It's still his market. He's still in charge." Then, as if she's remembering herself at fourteen, coming home from school to the market to find her dad butchering and her mom at the cash register, she adds, "Maybe that's the I-never-want-to-grow-up thing."
It's 1 p.m., and the restaurant is still packed. Don Knight is still taking names on a clipboard. Ray is still drinking Bud and smoking cigarettes, but now he's also playing pinochle with his buddies, two male and one female.
All the tables and most seats at the bar are filled. The recession does not seem to be hurting business here. With glasses clicking, trays filling, plates banging, people laughing, Ray calmly explains his secret: "Good service, good food. People got to eat."
Mary Knight is sitting at a round table on the other side of the restaurant with her sister Joan VanSickle, Sherry, and Sherry's daughters Liz and Lindsay. Sherry took the morning off to drive her mom and aunt to their favorite quilting store and then to the family restaurant for lunch.
Mary worked at the market from the time Chet started school until she retired at the age of sixty-two.
"My wife's done a great job," says Ray. "She's the one to give credit to, not me. The man don't mean nothing."
Yet Mary says that in all the years she worked at the market, she never considered making changes. "Never." And then she explains why: "My husband is a German person. . . . The man is master."
Without missing a beat, Joan chimes in, "and we are compliant Irish girls."
"I am happy," says Mary. "I have five children. I've had an awfully happy life."
Sherry's changing the market with her dad's blessing. Still, she's doing some things he probably wouldn't, like the Obama Coffee samples that shocked Mark Hodesh.
"Obama Coffee?" Ray asks. "Is that right? I'm a Republican-but if it's over there, I'm for it."
Sherry's even thinking about putting up a sign-something her Dad didn't see any need for. "I've always believed in quality, and word of mouth-it's worked very well," Ray says. But he adds, "If Sherry wants to put up a sign, it's fine with me."
It's been sixty-eight years since Ray Knight started his after-school job with Al Scharbat. It's never easy for someone with so much history in a place to step aside. But Ray seems content to see the kids take over and pleased with what he's accomplished.
"You know how the high school puts out-what do they call it?-the Omega, the yearbook?" he says. "It says in there Ray Knight's gonna be in the grocery business. So it worked out."
[Originally published in May, 2009.]