When you first meet Stuart Litt you wonder how a guy that lives, breathes and handles corned beef all day can stay so skinny. You could almost say rangy, based on his height.
“I am busy all day running around, I have toast in the morning, and some soup later on. Also I am almost 60, things slow down. No need for 3 squares a day. When I was you’re age I was lifting weights and eating a ton,” Litt said as we chatted the other day.
I can say, that at this point in my life, If I spent 10-12 hours a day at Hygrade Deli, I would be one thick fella.
Right over the bridge, headed from Corktown towards southwest Detroit on Michigan avenue you will spot Hygrade Deli on the right hand side. From the outside looking in, you can almost imagine a real-time scene of your grandparents splitting a sandwich in black and white, but the food inside is delicious and full of color.
The interior is indeed a blast from the past, in a sort of inescapable way. Many places now-a-days search high and low to find used, vintage or otherwise weathered building materials to lend a classic look to their spot. Hygrade Deli has a natural beauty, no need for cosmetics.
Unsure what to order I fumbled around with the menu, taking a look through all the items covering the full spectrum of deli goods. From pastrami to cheeseburgers it seemed like Hygrade had it all. The smiling lady at the counter offered some advice.
“Get the Reuben, really its the best. No kidding,” she said.
I of course agreed, ordered some potato salad and sat down.
The waitress dropped off my water, a straw and a huge stack of napkins. She mentioned I would need them. Once the Reuben hit the table I understood the preemptive napkin stack. Everyone has had a Reuben – the ingredients are not a mystery, nor is the sandwich unique to Hygrade, but it really outclasses itself from the rest. Without slipping into some near pornographic rant about the interplay of flavors and the way the thousand island bursts from the sides, you will have to go try it yourself.
It was close to the 3 p.m. closing time and once Litt had a second to catch up, he came by my table so we could chat. Despite recent news coverage, Litt was very enthusiastic and eager to chat. I noticed some folks get so accustomed to their story and elevator speech that it becomes rehearsed.
As Detroit gains a bit of momentum I was curious how Hygrade has been doing and how it’s relative location to Corktown affected the deli.
“Well last year we were up 14%, but operating costs eat into the uptick. The recession was tough, as it was for everyone. We were doing great in the 70’s into the early 80’s…the Cadillac plant closed, Detroit continued to deteriorate, businesses closed around us, and it was hard to stay alive,” Litt said.
Litt’s father, Bernie, bought the deli from a guy named Nate Stutz in 1972, and Stuart Litt has been working there since. First as a high school student and later while attending Wayne State. His father suffered a heart attack and Stuart had to step in for a while to run the business.
“It wasn’t exactly my goal or dream when I was younger, but it was what I needed to do,” Litt said.
His father originally ran a deli on Livernois’ avenue of fashion called Billy’s, but as the city started to change he looked to get out of the deli business. After working various jobs for a few years, his he and his brother talked Stutz into selling them the Hygrade. The deli was originally located in The Western Market, a one time counter-part to our Eastern Market. Once the Fisher Freeway was constructed, the deli moved to its current spot on Michigan Ave.
“We don’t see as much traffic from the other side of the bridge as we’d like, but once people find out about it, have something to eat, they will come back. Its only a mile…doesn’t take long to cover a mile. As people get re-located downtown, they look for lunch and we want them to know we’re here, making the best sandwiches in the city,” he said.
“I am selfish like that,” he said with a grin.
He also wants people to know that Hygrade is not just a lunch spot, they’re also open for breakfast. They serve the full compliment of breakfast items – eggs, bacon, pancakes and omelettes are all available with a hot cup of coffee.
I wondered if he had plans about moving closer to the action in Corktown.
“No, I am on the downside of a career, we still make and put out the same high quality food as we always did – with social media and some other news coverage, I think people are realizing we are here. We are the only high-quality kosher deli…other’s sell corned beef, but ours is the best,” Litt said.
They get their meat from Sy Ginsberg’s United Meat, just four blocks away on Hubbard. Everyone is so hot for locally sourced products and this is about as close as it gets.
A few years ago when the doom and gloom of the recession hung around like a noxious cloud, some people were wondering if Hygrade would weather the storm. I heard people mention “so glad I got one of those sandwiches before they closed down.”
I can ensure you that is not the case. Things were rough, but the deli is looking forward to many more good years across the bridge on Michigan. The dots in Detroit are connecting and Hygrade Deli is a piece that should be popped back into the resurgence puzzle.
I got to chatting with the couple seated next to me after they asked how my sandwich was. With my fingers dripping thousand-island and sauerkraut glued to my beard, I imagined it was obvious.
“The funny thing is, so many things like this have always been here, a lot of us know that. As things come around a bit, people are rediscovering places that haven’t moved. It’s like these places just fell from the sky, and everyone is finding them,” the customer said.
Next time you are wondering where to grab breakfast or lunch, push past Corktown, head about a mile west, cross the bridge straddling the Fisher Freeway, take a step into Detroit history and have the best corned beef in the city. Keep in mind, a combo with chips and a drink from Jimmy Johns costs about $10. For $12, I had an amazing Reuben, homemade potato salad and a great time.