Rubin: At the original Caesars, life and pizza go on

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Everything new and good downtown began here, in a little storefront on Cherry Hill Road in Garden City.

A day after the passing of founder Mike Ilitch, a customer stops in at the original Little Caesars store in Garden City. It's on Cherry Hill Road between a dry cleaner and a defunct coin laundry.

Before Foxtown. Before Comerica Park and Ford Field. Before the hot restaurants and cool young people and Compuware, and generations before Dan Gilbert.

Before all of it, there was Little Caesar’s Pizza Treat, opened on May 8, 1959, and still serving customers Saturday afternoon as the co-founder’s family planned his funeral.

“Pizza Treat” and the apostrophe in “Caesar’s” disappeared across the decades, and so did much of the original menu – chicken, fish, shrimp, hot dogs. Mike and Marian Ilitch stayed, and they built their empire and their piece of the city on a sturdy foundation of hard work and pepperoni.

“We lost a good guy, didn’t we?” asked Pat Bledsoe, 58, of Westland.

A big guy in a maize Big House sweatshirt, he was picking up an $8 deep dish pie. Mike Ilitch, 87, had died the night before, but life is for the living and restaurants are for the hungry, so the doors opened at 11 a.m. the way they had for 21,099 days.

Bledsoe is enough of a regular that he was familiar with the poster-sized commemorative plaque on the back wall, across an archway from the tubs of Crazy Sauce: “The Little Caesars story starts right here.”

A commemorative plaque hangs at the original Little Caesars restaurant in Garden City, next to the archway that leads to the kitchen where two workers made pizzas early Saturday afternoon.

“It’s cool to say that,” Bledsoe said – that only minutes from his house is an important site, if you’re into either history or a speedy lunch. “It’s a nice little landmark.”

The landmark stands just east of Venoy Road between a dry cleaner and an out-of-business coin laundry. It’s 2 ½ miles from the original Kmart, also in Garden City, which looked stripped and looted well before the permanent clearance sale that will end next month.

The carryout restaurant looks as up-to-date as anything in an aging strip mall can. The latest renovation was last year, and when a crew tore out the walls, it exposed the painted illustrations on the original bricks. Some of the bricks were given to employees.

On its first day, Little Caesar’s baked 49 pizzas, and Marian Ilitch recorded the sales in a spiral notebook. By 1962, the first franchise opened in Warren. By the time Mike died, there were more than 2,500 stores spread across four continents.

He moved his headquarters downtown in 1989, well before it made sense. He spent $12 million to renovate the glorious Fox Theatre, took occupancy upstairs, and managed to thrive whether he was selling 2-for-1 “Pizza! Pizza!” or $5 Hot-N-Readys.

A sign in the window facing the road Saturday boasted of five $5 items, one of them “Bacon Cheddar Loaded Crazy Bites.”

Craig Pudas of Garden City came in and bought two pizzas and two orders of Crazy Bread. The transaction took 30 seconds, which helps explain how a chain can stay afloat charging a fiver for its signature item.

“This is the closest one to my house,” said Pudas, 51. He was feeding his wife and two kids, not visiting a monument.

Still, he said, the story is “cool to know. It’s kind of a bonus.”

Once upon a time, before the Red Wings and the Tigers and even a championship slow-pitch softball team called the Detroit Caesars, Mike Ilitch was here.

He made a fortune and he made an impact. But first, with his own two hands, he made pizzas.