Log Cabin to Fraser's Pub
The evolution of 2045 Packard
by Jan Schlain
"The place was a total disaster!" says Joan Fraser.
Fraser, eighty-two, is recalling the condition of the restaurant at 2045 Packard when her husband, Bill, and his brother, Jimmy, leased it in 1962. It wasn't nearly as old as it looked--it first appears in the 1941 Polk City Directory as the Log Cabin, a "confectioner" owned by Leonard McCalla--but had already seen hard use. McCalla's sister and brother-in-law, Dorothy and Earl Fawcett, ran it as a restaurant till the mid-1950s. (Joan recalls "an ice-cream drive-through" on the side of the building--perhaps the source of Polk's initial classification.) The Fawcetts then leased it to Henry Turner, who called it Henry's Chuck Wagon, and then, briefly, to Larry and Mamie Davis.
The Davises advertised that they were "recommended by Gourmet and Duncan Hines." But as Joan recalls it, the couple didn't know the first thing about running a business. "It went belly up," says John, the oldest of Joan and Bill's four children. "My dad, Uncle Jimmy, and grandfather decided to do something, try it, and they did."
When they first looked at 2045 Packard, Joan recalls, the building was beat up--but "it had parking." And the brothers were being driven by "necessity." Bill--also known as Red, for his red hair--was a milkman for the Cloverleaf Dairy, but by then, "people were getting their milk from large grocery stores like Kroger's for pennies cheaper." Jimmy's employer, Argus Camera, was losing ground to foreign competitors.
The brothers, Joan says, started out with a five-year lease. "That was my husband's promise--'I'm just going to get in the business, we're gonna be there for about five years, and then we'll be gone.'
"'I said, 'Okay, fine.''' Five years are up. He says, 'You know, we really should buy it.' So I said, 'I should have known--I should have been able to read between the lines.'"
But looking back, she says, "Going from milk to beer was a smart move." Fifty years later, the family business, Fraser's Pub,
is still going strong.
"It turned into a real working-class bar when Red and Jimmy bought it," recalls Realtor Phil Conlin. "A blue-collar construction workers' stop."
Businessmen like Conlin who worked nearby would come in, too. "They all mixed pretty well, actually," recalls John's sister Jan.
"Jan was the anchor," says Joan. "She closed it at night. She wrote the checks. She saw to it that the bills were paid." Almost all of the family worked in the bar at the beginning, and they all found where they worked best--and didn't.
"Something happened every day," Joan recalls. The furnace broke down or the refrigerator broke down or the sink plugged up ... Bill's mother came in to help me in the kitchen. Bill's father ran the grill, for a very short time. Then he took the spatula and threw it across the room, and said, 'That's it. I can do one order at a time! You throw me two or three orders, that's it!' Then we had to hire a cook."
Jan recalls those early years with deep affection. "My dad would sit at the end of the bar and entertain people," she says. "They came to listen to his stories. He was a real charismatic man.
"I didn't get to know my dad until" they worked together, Jan adds, her voice softening. "Being a milkman, he was out and about, and when we got home from school, it was like, 'Shhhh. Your dad's sleeping.'" (He had to get up very early to deliver milk.) Working with him, Jan says, he "became my best friend."
Fraser's "transformed into a sports bar during the Bo Schembechler era," Conlin says. "Sometimes during a U of M football game, especially after a touchdown, it gets as loud in there as the stadium!"
Bill loves U-M, and Michigan football, which led to a couple of what Jan refers to as "Bo incidents," when some of Schembechler's team were at the pub drinking when they should have been at practice. "Dad didn't know they were underage! It never occurred to him to check! 'Are they down there?' [Bo would call and ask]. 'Nope.' [Bill would say]."
Jan left the bar when her daughter was born, almost thirty years ago, and now works at the U-M. Her sister Becky cuts hair at Unique Hair Studio on Jackson Rd. John and his brother Billy took over after their father and uncle retired. (Jimmy died in 2004; Bill now has dementia).
Billy sold his shares this past June, and is thinking about going into business down in Florida. John now owns Fraser's with former bartender and manager Ron Sartori. Ron was Billy's childhood friend, and Jan hired him way back when. While many employees were just passing through, Ron (like some customers) never left.
On most football Saturdays, John, sixty-one, can be found sitting by the front door, greeting customers and checking IDs. For big games like MSU, the crowd overflows into a tent in the parking lot.
One change over the years is that the owners no longer tend the bar themselves--the bartenders, like the waitresses, are now young, fit, friendly females. "They [the customers] don't come to see us," John explains. "Guys want to see girls." The cooks, at the moment, are all male. "They're young, and they all got drama in their lives, and texting," says Sartori. "It's crazy."
Since the 1980s, Fraser's has been through three major renovations--they extended the bar, redid the bathrooms, took out the game tables from the backroom, installed an Internet juke box and computerized order system (which counts every pour), and built an outdoor patio in the front. But the biggest change came when Michigan banned smoking in eating places in 2010.
"That's helped a lot," John says."We washed the place from top to bottom. On May first of that year, it opened up for non-smoking. Two weeks later there [were] eleven or twelve women and a baby [in the pub]. They came, sat right there"--he points to a table in the center of the main room--"and had a baby shower."
"The neighborhood came back," Conlin agrees. "Now it's a family tavern during the day and a sports bar at night."
"It's a brotherhood," says Harold "Bubba" Jackson, who works in marketing communications for the U-M. "We're all in our sixties, and here we can be together and feel like we did when we were in our twenties."
These days, Joan Fraser has a full time job tending to Bill and keeping her kids talking to one another. (Family businesses, she says, are hard on family relationships.) But "I have a very positive attitude," she says. Whether raising a family on milk or beer, she says, "I have never had a glass half empty."
[Originally published in November, 2012.]