Yeah, baby! Ernie’s Market serves up massive eats and millions of smiles.
by Jeff Lily | Photo ©2014 Bernie Laframboise
You’d be forgiven for driving by Ernie’s Market without giving it a second glance, if you stumbled upon it at all. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood in Oak Park near the border of Ferndale, the building itself is simple and nondescript, brown brick and white lettering sitting on blacktop with beer signs in the windows. If you went by after business hours, you might even think it abandoned.
Go by most days around lunch, though, and you’ll find a curious thing: People lined up, out the door, sometimes around the corner, waiting up to an hour to get inside. The reason? That humble exte- rior, Clark Kent-like, hides a super man inside.
Meet owner and sandwich man extraordinaire, Ernie Hassan, who’s been here just shy of sixty years, wielding his meat slicer and ear-to-ear grin, feeding bellies and hearts alike. Ernie does things a little differently (and a lot better) than anyone else.
“Hey, Baby!” Ernie shouts to the next person in line. “How ya’ doing, dar- ling?” He greets everyone, regardless of age or gender, the same way.
He’s somewhere north of 70, white hair tucked under a battered cap, beaming a smile that could melt an iceberg in ten seconds flat. He shoots the breeze for a minute, because whether you’ve been coming for 20 years or this is your first time, Ernie wants to know what’s happening in your life. He offers his fist for a bump, then gets down to busi- ness.
There’s no menu at Ernie’s. “The customer is number one.” Ernie says. “I want them to tell me what they want.” Rough guidelines are the $3, $4, and $5 sandwich (one meat, two meats, or three meats, respectively), but things tend to morph in a wonderful way, and always to the customer’s advantage.
“Is there anything you’re afraid of?” Ernie asks, when it’s my turn. I tell him “Things that go bump in the night”, but he’s talking about food. I select an onion roll as the base, tell him I want a $5 sandwich, and put it in his hands.
He stoops over his slicer and starts running a ten- pound block of colby through it with the manic energy of a man half his age. Four slices. Then provolone. Then comes the meat… ham, turkey, salami, piling comically higher and higher. All the while, Ernie keeps up a constant stream of chat- ter, telling jokes, spinning yarns, and talking to the others in line, now eight deep behind me. No one’s in a hurry, though, and everyone is smiling and having a blast.
Ernie loves a crowd, and everyone knows they’re going to get the same careful attention.
“I’m going to give you some pepperoni, too!” Ernie shouts, yanking a huge stick of it from the cooler. “You’ll like this! Who loves ya, baby?”
“You do.” I say.
“Ernie does!” Chorus the others in line. “Yeah, baby!” Ernie answers.
He hands the sandwich over to one of his assistants, who piles on tomato, onion, lettuce, pickles, cucumber slices, bell pepper slices, banana peppers, mayo, mustard, oil… and “The Love”, Ernie’s own blend of spices. Ernie picks up the sand- wich, which is now approaching the size of a bowling ball, and deftly wraps it in wax paper. I promise to return later for an in- terview, pay my $5 (cash only, please) and walk out. Behind me, Ernie is asking after the sister of a regular, chatting up another about his mother. He knows everyone, and talks to all the newbies too, learning their names and their stories so he can treat them with the same warmth and concern when they return.
I park my car on a residential street, roll down the windows, and have a picnic. I hadn’t had breakfast, and I’m definitely not going to need anything before dinner. It’s fresh, simple, and very, very delicious. I find out later that Ernie also does great veggie sandwiches, serving up things like sliced apples, radishes, and other goodies for those who don’t want meat. Like the rest of his ingredients, the details vary from day to day, but you’re guaranteed to get your ingredients fresh, and freshly- sliced, on the spot.
I return at five, just as Ernie’s helpers are packing up and leaving. Ernie locks the door after them and sits himself on a carpeted pad atop an old radiator, king of the world.
“My dad bought the market in 1955.” He recalls. “It started as a grocery store. My dad turned it into a meat mar- ket.” He points to the original meat locker, with its oak door and brass handles, still intact behind the sandwich counter. He takes me back and demonstrates the bal- ance beam scale, also original to the store, once used to weigh sides of beef. Ernie started off young as a stock boy and ca- shier, just helping out his father. “When my dad ran errands, the people from the neighborhood would come in the store and sit with me, to make sure nothing bad hap- pened.” He recalls with a smile.
When the meat business declined, “we sold beer and wine.” When Ernie took over the store, he started selling sandwiches.
“The store would be full of students” from Ferndale High, Ernie explains. “They were hungry. They wanted to eat. So I made them sandwiches. They’d yell at me if I screwed up, and we went from there.”
It’s safe to say it’s been a good long time since Ernie screwed up a sandwich. He’s won WDIV’s “Best Sandwich in Metro Detroit” honor every single year since 2008, as banners hanging at the front and back of the store commemorate. The store’s walls and the shelves above its coolers are decorated with articles about Ernie and awards given to him. Oak Park Citizen of the Year. Awards from the City of Fern- dale. Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition. There are many more. Ernie isn’t shy; he loves the attention.
“What is this?” He says, waving his arm, taking in the totality of the place.
“A local institution.” I reply.
“No.” He shakes his head vigorously. “It’s home. That feeling, in the community, is why I’m here.”
I ask him how the neighborhood has changed over the years. “It’s gotten better.” He says instantly. It’s been great to watch things change, he says, to see the revival of Ferndale and Oak Park and Hazel Park, all of the different festivals and func- tions and fun. “The high school football team is good, too.” He grins. “The excitement of a community. Know what I mean, baby?”
Where does he get his energy?
“From you.” He says emphatically. “From the people. We’re all in the same canoe.”
Ernie reaches under the counter and pulls out an old index card file box. In the old days, he explains, regular customers had a card with their weekly tab. On payday, someone would come down and settle up the bill. Ernie tells of a former customer who recently dropped in for a visit after many years away.
“Bet I still got your card.” Ernie told her. The woman didn’t believe it, so Ernie pulled it out… and discovered that they owed 25 cents.
“I’ll pay it.” Said the former customer. “No, you’re not. Your husband will.” Ernie said. She informed him that her husband had passed away.
“I told her, when I see him…” He pointed toward the ceiling, the big grin spreading its joy. “He’s gonna’ pay it!”
Here’s hoping Ernie doesn’t collect on that debt for a long, long time.
Whatever your views of the afterlife may be, one thing’s for certain… Ernie’s Market is a little slice of heaven, right here on earth.
Nah. Make that a lot of slices, piled high on an onion roll. With pickles and extra mayo, please. Oh, and don’t forget the love!
Ernie’s Market is located at 8500 Capital Street in Oak Park.
Open Monday to Friday 10 to 5, Saturday 10 to 3, closed Sunday. Phone (248) 541- 9703.
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