There’s no job like owning and running your own small business–except maybe keeping it all in the family.
“Everything is always your responsibility,” says Duncan Cole, owner of Sam’s Clothing Store on Liberty across from the Federal Building. “And you’re on call 24/7. Employees can come and go as they please, but no matter what, you’re stuck there.”
“No one cares about the business like I do,” says Chera Tramontin, who with her mother owns Kilwin’s Chocolate Shoppe farther down Liberty near Main. “The positive is it’s your own business and you get to create this thing. The negative is it’s your business and you’ve got to create this thing.”
“The business owns you,” explains Nick Stamadianos, co-owner of the Clover Leaf Restaurant on the corner of Fourth and Liberty. “We’re open seven days a week, 363 days a year. My wife comes in at 4 [a.m.] every day. I come in at 9. My son comes in at 9. And Art Fair, everybody comes at 4.”
“And even when you’re not there, your mind’s always there from the time you take a shower in the morning till the time your head hits the pillow at night,” says Jim Splitt, former owner of Gold Bond Cleaners in the shadow of Tower Plaza on Maynard. And Splitt says he often dreams about the business–“usually not nightmares,” he laughs.
Different as the four businesses are, all the owners agree that their businesses own them, not vice versa, and that the only solution to carrying that weight alone is to share it–usually with the family. Tramontin started at Kilwin’s when she was seven. Splitt’s wife, son, and daughter put in time at Gold Bond, and all three of Cole’s kids, plus his stepfather, sister, brother, and wife have worked at Sam’s. As Stamadianos says, “You got to have family.”
Sam Benjamin named Sam’s Clothing Store after himself when he opened on Washington in 1946 as an “everything plus war surplus” store. Milt Rochman bought the business when he moved to town in 1967–though Benjamin liked Sam’s so much, he stayed on for ten more years, working the floor part time.
Rochman added Levi’s jeans, and, with the baby boom booming, business outgrew the Washington store. In 1971 he moved it to a building he later bought on Liberty.
“The very next year Briarwood opened,” remembers Milt. “It was really terrifying. Then I decided I wasn’t selling price, I was selling service to the community. And it worked.”
Milt is Duncan Cole’s stepfather–and Duncan followed him into the business. He started at Sam’s in high school, tried college, but came back to work at the shop. “I ran it with Milt in the ’80s,” says Duncan, fifty-eight. “Then I bought it from him in ’89, a fifteen-year-note I paid off in five.”
With Duncan in the store’s backroom are his wife, Phyllis, and son Pete, both of whom had Sam’s connections. “Phyllis shopped here,” Duncan explains. Pete, the oldest of their three kids, followed his dad into the business eleven years ago.
“I didn’t want to work here,” says Pete, lean, clean, but still a bit of a punk. “But I got a car in ’99 that I needed to pay for, so I started at Art Fair. I thought it was temporary because I knew I didn’t want to work for Dad. I was living at home then, so I already saw him a lot.
“But it turned out I liked it more than my father ever thought I would–and more than I ever thought I would, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
“Pete is manager,” says Duncan. “As he develops the skills, we’ll develop the transfer–probably in three to five years.”
“I’m not in a rush,” Pete says. “It might not be the same arrangement Dad had, but it’ll be fine.”
“Business doesn’t go up or down a whole lot,” says Duncan, “but all the other expenses go up–energy, phone, and especially people. In the ’70s, we had six or seven people working here. Now we have three full-timers and a couple of part-timers.
Like other family business owners, the Coles don’t get a lot of time off. “We work all the time, and we’re never available on weekends,” says Duncan. “It’s the life.” Still, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years, and it’s never been better. And Pete and I are getting along much better than we ever have. I love him, and it’s great that I get to be with him so much.”
Duncan blushes, too embarrassed to go on–but his son’s eyes are glowing.
“This business has been opened since the ’30s,” says Jim Splitt, the crisply dressed former owner of Gold Bond Cleaners, sitting at a table at Espresso Royale on State. “It was owned by the Goldman brothers until one brother left and opened Gold Bond.” Splitt, seventy-seven and a fourth-generation Ann Arborite, was born into the laundry business: “My father worked as a driver.”
Splitt started working at Varsity Linen Service while still a kid. “By the time I was twenty-four, I was managing. I was a manager for ten years, then I struck out on my own” by buying Gold Bond. The year before, Splitt’s daughter Carol was born and the year after, his son John.
Gold Bond was then on William, but when Tower Plaza went up in 1969, it moved to its present location on Maynard. “I purchased the business in ’73,” says Splitt. “It expanded as part of the normal business cycle, but then, in the Reagan era, as men started wearing suits again, business just boomed.”
That’s when his son reentered the picture. “I went off to MSU,” says John, fifty-two, dressed more casually but no less crisply than his father. “After three years, I came back to town and went to work just to see how things would pan out.”
“I needed him,” says Jim. “At the time, we had ten people working in the store, and from my point of view, he could have taken over the business.”
“That was definitely not on my mind,” laughs John. “But then I got married in ’84–and the longer I stayed married, the more I saw it as a career. Then I realized this is what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.”
“I had been transferring stock to John without him knowing it,” says Jim. “We were kind of co-managers. Then one day he asked for more control. It felt natural, but it was difficult for me being a control freak. I still wanted to be hands-on to be able to produce the perfect product.”
“I really appreciate what he did,” says John of his father’s willingness to let go. “I know how much this business means to him.” And Jim still comes in every week to sign the paychecks and take care of some other chores. “My philosophy is that a man needs something to do,” Jim says, “something that matters, somewhere to go.”
These days, the dry cleaning business is down. “Ten years ago, we had fifteen people working here,” Jim says. “Now we have ten. It’s all tied to the overall economy, and our business is always cyclical.”
But that hasn’t changed the way the Splitts feel about Gold Bond. “I love it,” says Jim simply. “I didn’t think it would happen,” agrees John. “But yes, I do love the business.”
As for the future, John says, “I bought the building in 2003, and I’ll be done paying for it in 2023. I may not retire until then–but I hope to retire sooner.”
“Wait as long as you can,” his dad advises.
It wasn’t a passion for chocolate that got Karen Piehutkoski to open Kilwin’s Chocolate Shoppe. “Business was my passion,” says the elegantly dressed, slightly reserved Piehutkoski, “I thought long and hard about what Ann Arbor needed–and I came to the conclusion it needed chocolate.”
“My mom knew she wanted a chocolate shop,” says the more casually dressed and much more overtly enthusiastic Chera Tramontin, “and my brother and I got to be the taste testers. We traveled all over the country looking for the richest chocolate, and we found it right here in our own state.”
“They ate all sorts of chocolate,” says Karen. “They ate all the fudge in Traverse City, and then we went to Petoskey where they tasted Kilwin’s fudge.”
“My brother and I ate it all before we got to the hotel!” exclaims Chera. “That never happened, and we had to go back and get more candy so my mom could try it.”
Convinced, Karen opened Kilwin’s on Liberty just east of Main in 1983. She was the company’s first franchisee–there are now seventy stores nationwide–and business was strong from the start. Still, Karen was cautious and expanded into the space next door in ’95 only after she decided to add a new product line: ice cream.
“Chera’s been here since she was seven,” Karen says, “but I didn’t allow her to touch anything except the money. I let her run the register.”
“It was great growing up and working here as a kid,” says Chera, now thirty-five. “Then, like most kids, I left town and went to college. But unlike most kids, I came back to town because I got a job working in cancer research at the U doing drug studies. I was not very happy, and I wanted to come back to Kilwin’s–and she said it’s not the right time. Then, while I was still doing cancer research, my own mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001.”
“I could have gotten someone from the outside to manage,” remembers Karen. “But if I had, I probably would have to have sold it eventually if not sooner. After all, my life had been completely changed. I used to practically live here, working seven days a week, and that was all over now. So I said to her, okay, do you still want to come in?”
“Of course I said yes,” says Chera. “I got a six month leave of absence from the U and never went back.” Karen’s treatment took a year, and afterwards, Chera says, “she never really came back to work except at the holidays–though she still likes to pop in, order people around for a minute, and then pop out.”
“There are two shareholders,” Karen explains. “And every year or two she gets some shares.”
“She likes to be in control,” laughs Chera.
“There is no agreement for her to become sole stockholder,” Karen says. “I want to be involved. I love being here, and I think it’s going fine. Day to day, Chera’s here–and I don’t get to come in and tell everybody what to do.” She smiles sweetly at Chera. Karen clearly loves her daughter, but she doesn’t just like to be in control: she needs to be in control. Chera doesn’t mind. She’s happy to be doing what she loves and loves doing it with her mother.
“We’re both in a happy place,” says Chera. “We make a decent living so we can both afford to have a life.”
“It’s been ten years since the diagnosis and nine since treatment,” says Karen. “This life is as good as it gets.” If there’s a serenity in her tone, it’s the hard-won kind.
“I don’t take things for granted,” says Chera. “I got out of cancer research because I cannot disconnect myself emotionally. I loved helping people, but I’m way too emotional with people. I like people, and selling somebody a candy is a happy thing and I can stay connected to them–and to my mom.”
The Clover Leaf Restaurant on the corner of Liberty and Fourth is like no other restaurant downtown. Along with their trademark breakfast omelets, the menu features meat, hash browns, homemade potatoes, and biscuits and gravy, though it’s recently added more fruits and vegetables. The decorations include wall maps of Greece and Cyprus and a small vase of plastic flowers on every table.
“I opened on Broadway over on the north side,” says owner Nick Stamadianos, sixty-four, sitting in the diner’s small back dining room. “It was called the Clover Leaf Dairy. I bought into it and spent eighteen years there with my brother. Then I got the keys for here. It used to be Bill’s Coffee Cup. Then we bought this space [in back] and converted it.”
“I’m from Greece,” Nick continues, “and my wife from Cyprus. We came to Ann Arbor in 1960. My wife still comes in every morning at 4 and cooks the food for the day except for the grill. Then we come in around 9, and we’re open until 5. Then we’re here after that cleaning up.”
“I’ve worked here since I was ten or eleven,” says their son George, thirty-four. “I started washing dishes and worked here right through when I graduated from Pioneer. I kept working here while I was going to WCC, but it was too much. I’ve been here full-time since I was eighteen–seven days a week.”
“One of us is here all the time,” Nick says. “It got tougher nine years ago when he got family.” George’s wife, Dina, and their two kids are sitting in the booth next to ours. Dina is a quiet, dark-haired beauty, and Nicko and Stacy are good as gold.
“You try to run two families here, it’s tough,” agrees George.
“With most Greek families, all the work stays in the family,” Nick says. “You can’t run it yourself. And I wanted somebody to sit on the grill all day so I could get to sit with the customers. Half of the business here is socializing–and I talk to everybody, eight hours a day, seven days a week, and for Art Fair, twelve, fourteen, fifteen hours a day!”
Nick admits business these days is terrible. “It’s very good when something’s going on,” he says. “But most of the time? Terrible.” It looks that way. It’s lunchtime, but only one other table is full, though the five Germans there seem to be thoroughly enjoying their lunch.
“When we had to change to not smoking, it really changed things for us,” says George. “It’s not like it was in the ’90s. The front was smoking Monday to Friday, and it was packed.”
“Coffee and cigarettes just go together,” says Nick with a smile.
But when I ask if they’re going to make it, Nick and George give the same reply: “We’ll still be here.”
Later I call the Clover Leaf with follow-up questions and get George on the line. At the end, I ask him if he loves the business.
“It’s more like a love-hate relationship,” he says. “It’s like a jail with no bars. It’s harsh. It’s very difficult. So many things have to go right to make money. And we’re not like at an upscale place with liquor and expensive meals. We don’t generate enough money to hire a manager. So if you own it, you’ve got to work here all of the time.”
George doesn’t sound bitter. He sounds resigned. He’s the first and only son, and his path was marked out for him.
“My dad’s never had a paid vacation in his life. That’s the footsteps I follow in.”
These days, George is carrying more of the load. “I do less work now,” Nick says. “I can’t sit on the grill all day, and he does the hiring and firing.”
“The future is more responsibility for me,” says George. “I don’t know how much longer Mom will be coming here at 4 in the morning, so I’ll have to come early.” Though he may be ambivalent about the business, he won’t let his family down.
And his dad’s not going anywhere. “I’ll always be here,” says Nick. “I’ll take more time off in the future, a day here and there. But if I’m not here, I’ll just go to another restaurant. I go to the truck stops, sit at the counters, and talk to people.”