Telway serves up burgers, memories for Metro Detroit

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Stepping into Telway restaurants feels almost like traveling back in time to a bygone era.

Both of its Metro Detroit locations feature retro décor, cash-only registers, homemade hamburgers and a diner-like setting where hungry guests crack jokes with staffers who can recall their birthdays, family names, even work schedules.

Long known as the go-to spot open 24 hours, it’s the type of place that attracts regulars such as Cleo Winkler, who is in her 80s and estimates she has frequented the Motor City branch for more than 60 years.

Debbie McComas started working at Telways at 19. Now going on 48 years at the restaurant, she poses with her co-worker and daughter Deidre McComas.

“Everything is wonderful — always has been,” the Detroiter said while seated on a red stool awaiting a breaded chicken sandwich one recent evening. “You come back here 10 years from now, it’ll still be the same.”

Telway’s operators are keeping that recipe for success as they work to open a third location in southeast Michigan following the traditions handed down from its longtime owner, Arthur Earl Owens. The seasoned professional, who died last month at age 87, was a fixture at the firm he spent decades shaping into a formidable venture that has outlasted competitors.

“His main goal was just to keep everything as original as possible,” said Nicole Owens, the owner’s granddaughter, who manages the Telway in Madison Heights.

Plans are still in the works for the newest Telway, which Earl Owens’ son has agreed to run and was spurred by the success of the other spots.

The Dearborn Heights addition fills a property the older Owens selected for its resemblance to the other two eateries that welcome thousands of fans monthly, his granddaughter said. “That was his goal: to keep that old-school diner feel where people can just come in, get a cup of coffee and talk to the regulars and be relaxed.”

Authenticity has long been a staple for Earl Owens, an Oklahoman military veteran who started working at Telway in his 20s before taking it over from the founders, said Greg Cloutier, the Detroit spot’s current manager.

Launched in Detroit by the 1940s, the enterprise once operated near Grand River and Telegraph; the Madison Heights site started in 1959, Nicole Owens said.

While heading the Michigan Avenue post on Detroit’s west side, Earl Owens left an indelible mark — from finding the two buggy-lugging painted bulls out front to instructing his workers on the fastest approach to fielding, then filling, numerous orders.

“If you didn’t make a good hamburger, you weren’t at the grill,” said his niece, Joyce Cloutier, 52, who started working there while in high school. “Your burgers had to be exactly the way he wants them. And you had to be quick. If you were slowing up, he’d jump up along aside you.”

Between overseeing operations and doling out witticisms such as “You got time to lean, you got time to clean,” Owens insisted on incorporating the freshest ingredients — plus old-fashioned techniques — in cooking sliders, French fries and other items devotees swear outdo fare at rival joints.

The Madison Heights branch only added a shake machine in the last decade, and both Telways produce its famous coffee with antique-style “percolating” pots, Owens’ granddaughter said. “That he wanted to keep and that’s something that’s very special for our coffee, but it’s one of a kind.”

Nicole Bruesch is among the untold numbers who have poured into the Wayne County shop for a caffeine-laden cup before work. And on the Fourth of July, the Dearborn resident stopped in to savor cheeseburgers and chili cheese fries at the counter.

“I like the food and the workers are great,” she said while sitting beside her teenage son. “You can sit and have a conversation and you kind of feel like you’re at home. It’s just a nice place to go. The prices are great. …Where can you get a hamburger or a cheeseburger for $1.10? You can’t even do that at White Castle.”

“Not one this good,” her best friend, Dawn Mostafa, said from a couple chairs down.

Telway’s selections are so widely praised, its cups have popped up in out-of-state rest stops and, just before the holiday, the Detroit spot received an order for 200 hamburgers and as many cheeseburgers to serve at a wedding the next day.

Jackie Groves, a staffer for nearly 40 years, hardly batted an eye and rushed to fill the request in under three hours with help from others. “It was like another day,” she said with a shrug. “We just had to keep rotating around.”

Those distinctive touches and connections with customers are key to guaranteeing longevity in a high-turnover industry where few businesses celebrate more than 70 years of continuous operation, said Justin Winslow, president and CEO at the Michigan Restaurant Association. “It is unique because it has survived. ...Many others of its ilk haven’t stood the test of time. That’s something to be commended.”

The association, which includes some 4,600 locations statewide, recently found that independent establishments fared better than chain restaurants during the first quarter of 2017, Winslow said. Telway’s success might help explain why.

“There’s... attachment to that which is unique and authentic, that has history tied to it, that’s not the same as everything else,” Winslow said. “Telway has that in spades.”

That is why Earl Owens pushed originality — right down to ordering employees to peel onions. And so imperative was the need to not change too much for his visitors, when spiking food costs once forced him to consider raising prices, “he had to go home because he felt bad,” his niece said. “It bothered him.”

Besides counting on cheap eats, patrons can also expect plenty of attention from staffers — who over the years took cues from the owner’s coffee chats and singing.

“You’d never find anybody better to work for,” Linda Laws, who has worked there for some 29 years, said while wearing a white “Telway vs. Everybody” T-shirt. “He was the best.”

Owens’ photo was displayed prominently inside the Detroit Telway on Tuesday — not far from the doughnut case and below a red-lettered sign above the donuts that reads “Smile… It’s contagious.”

Steps away, Greg Cloutier grilled beef patties and squeezed ketchup dollops onto brown buns as dozens of customers streamed through the entrance.

Clark Tagger, a Detroiter who can quickly name other fans dropping in as often, savors the tasty offerings as well as the atmosphere.

“The people that have been coming up here have been coming up for years,” he said, carrying a bag to his car.

Elsewhere in the parking lot, while regulars basked in the sunshine, Christopher Caudill, his fiancee, son and nephew sat in their car devouring burgers and hillbilly chili.

The Downriver resident visits Telway often — a habit inherited from his father, who now lives in Illinois and makes the restaurant the first stop on return trips.

“When I lived in Warren, I used to come over here, too,” he said. “They’re quick on getting a lot of burgers out. I just love the food.”

With those diehards in mind, Owens regularly checked in at his restaurants and remained involved until this spring — even helping deliver goods, his granddaughter said. “He was one of the hardest working people I ever met in my life. He literally didn’t quit until the end.”

In turn, his family and associates intend to continue that legacy at all three locations.

“That was his pride and joy,” Nicole Owens said. “That is now our pride and joy.”