Ex-owner of Mr. Fofo's Deli, known for corned beef, dies of COVID-19

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

Otis Knapp Lee never got the chance to say thank you to Detroit.

Lee, a Detroit native who opened Mr. Fofo's Deli and ran the Midtown restaurant for 34 years, died Sunday of coronavirus complications. He was 72.

Otis Knapp Lee at his restaurant in September 1989.

Metro Detroiters who remember his famous corned beef sandwiches expressed their condolences and appreciation on social media. Lee's son Keith Lee said he wants to say thank you to those people on his father's behalf. 

"Detroit got behind him and supported him to this day," said Keith Lee, 47. "Facebook, everybody ... just so many calls, and inboxes, and texts, it was a beautiful thing. It made me feel good just sitting there, seeing everybody's response."

Lee became ill late last week while staying with a family member. Keith Lee noticed his father's speech wasn't as sharp as usual over the phone, so he told his aunt to call an ambulance. 

Lee was treated at Garden City Hospital, where he was medically induced into a coma once his body was unresponsive to medicine. After four days, Keith Lee was told he had five minutes to say his last goodbyes to his father. He said he rushed to the hospital and called all of his siblings to talk to their dad one last time. 

Lee was one of the first black people in Detroit to open a deli featuring corned beef sandwiches, his son said.

"Coming in there with the ribs, the baked goods, the R&B, the soul food, the fish, that was the only place to go to get it like that," said Keith Lee.  

It wasn't unusual to walk into Mr. Fofo's and see a crowd of people in the restaurant, employees running around in the back to keep up with the orders and Lee loudly speaking over everyone else in the building. 

Lee, who was born in 1948, learned how to bake from his grandmother, but he wanted to get into cooking as well, his son said. He opened Mr. Fofo's in 1974 and built a legacy that touched his family and the larger community.

"His impact ... we feel it wholeheartedly in our family," Keith Lee said. "And on top of that, that restaurant was a school for me, my brothers, sisters, cousins, all of us."

Keith Lee, whose nickname Fofo inspired the restaurant's name, remembers most, if not all, of his childhood being in the deli. Lee was tough as a boss and father, he said. In 2008, during the Great Recession, Mr. Fofo's Deli closed and Lee retired to Florida. 

Eight years later in 2016, Keith Lee convinced his father to move back to Detroit to help him reopen the deli, this time near the Avenue of Fashion at Seven Mile and Livernois. 

The second location lasted about three years before the Lee family closed it for good due to several months of road construction on Livernois. 

Lee was considering moving to Texas or back to Florida before he died, his son said. 

Because of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's ban on large gatherings of people, the Lee family won't be able to hold a funeral — at least not yet. 

Keith Lee and his siblings created a Facebook page in Lee's honor. Though they're not sure when, they're planning on livestreaming a memorial service for their father on the page. 

"We're going to try to hold on until it's a better time, a better climate, that way everybody can be a part of it," Keith Lee said.