My grandmother, Rozalia Krzemienski, a Polish immigrant with a third-grade education, ran a tiny shot-and-a-beer bar for autoworkers in Detroit for 60 years. I spent my childhood summers with her, watching her deal with customers and make decisions as the small-business owner of the Rose Café, which was named after her. She taught me some valuable business lessons.
- Be Your Own Boss
When Grandma arrived in Halifax on December 4, 1928 on the White Star Lines’ RMS Majestic, the sister ship of the Titanic, she had $2 in her pocket. In Detroit, my grandfather had set up housekeeping ahead of her and they both agreed that she should seek work. She got a job as a cleaning lady at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, but lasted only one day. She told me she couldn’t stand her boss, a woman who swore at the employees. She never worked again for anyone but herself. My grandparents struggled during the Depression, but eventually saved enough to open their first bar on Michigan Avenue, not far from Tiger Stadium.
- Don’t Be Afraid of Dirty Work
My grandmother would rise at 5 a.m. six days a week and walk the six blocks to open the bar. Customers would begin arriving at 6 a.m. for a wake-up “snort,” as she put it, before their shifts at the Chrysler McGraw Glass Plant and the Cadillac Clark Street Assembly Plant. The first thing she did was to swab the rest rooms from top to bottom from the night before. I asked her why she didn’t hire a cleaning crew to do the dirty work. She told me that sometimes you have to put your hand in the toilet before you can put your hand in the till.
- Embrace Entrepreneurship, Despite the Risks
Grandma not only tended bar, she branched out into other endeavors. In the 1950s, when Hollywood actresses were wearing chinchilla furs, she decided to raise the rodents in her basement to make extra money. She started with two and, in short order, had hundreds of cages. The workload was tremendous and she tried to farm out some of the cage cleaning and feeding to family members. However, the chinchillas only liked Grandma and would bite anyone else who put their hand in the cage. The business was a failure and Grandma traded her chinchillas for a part-ownership in a gas station.
- Know Your Core Business
In the 1960s, when Brandy Alexanders, Grasshoppers and other fancy cocktails were the rage, Grandma steadfastly refused to change the simple bar menu. Customers could get a beer, a shot-and-a-beer or blackberry brandy if they were sick and could prove it. Banned from the menu were any drinks with fruit or tiny umbrellas. Bar food amounted to little more than bags of fried pork rinds, chips and beef jerky. The largely male clientele, all with nicknames such as Flash, Brownie and Mooch, seemed perfectly happy with the offerings.
- Stick To Your Standards
Prostitutes were not allowed in the bar. However, Grandma would let them stand in the outside vestibule if it was raining, and I sometimes saw her take a cup of coffee out to one. When she died in 2001, some of them came to her funeral to pay tribute to her. Grandma also served as the bar’s bouncer, even though she was barely five-feet tall. A sign that hung in the bar for decades showed a drawing of a woman pointing her finger with the words: “It’s Nice To Be Nice. Try It!” If Grandma had any trouble with a drunk, she would point to the sign and they invariably got the message.
- Have a Life Outside of Work
Grandma’s energy level was almost superhuman. After tending bar from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Grandpa then took over until closing time in this two-person operation), she would walk home and then tend to her massive garden filled with roses and vegetables. She also made most of her own clothes and outfits for her grandkids. I would ride the bus with her to downtown Detroit after work in the summer, where she would pore through Vogue pattern books at the old Hudson’s department store, paying special attention to designers I had never heard of, including Balenciaga. She wouldn’t buy the pattern, but would return home and make her own out of tissue paper. We were the best-dressed kids at the Polish weddings in our neighborhood.
- Know the Value of Small Talk
Grandma could talk to anyone about anything, from sports to politics, and had a genuine interest in the world beyond the Rose Café. She was hooked on the radio and listened to a police scanner in her sewing room at home. It provided lots of grist for bar talk the next day. In the early days, one of the patrons, a Detroit bus driver, helped her with her English by making her read aloud the text in the comic section of the newspaper. She became something of a psychologist in the ensuing years. She listened patiently as many of the guys told her their problems. Sometimes, she gave advice. More than once I heard her tell one of them to “get out of here. Take the rest of your paycheck home to your wife.”
- Be Open To Advertising, PR and New Tech
My grandfather was a tinkerer and a carpenter, as well as a bartender, and Grandma encouraged and promoted his efforts. He created the Counter Motor Cart, a mechanized trolley that the two of them rode on behind the bar to cut down on the hundreds of steps they had to take every day. It became a conversation piece among the customers and even made the local papers, thanks to the rudimentary PR efforts of my grandmother. She kept the newspaper clippings in the Polish prayer book on her nightstand. An advertising sandwich board made by my grandfather also touted the invention in a primitive, but effective, way.
- Give Back
My grandparents were philanthropists. In the 1940s, they started the Lucky Rose Club for patrons, complete with signet rings emblazoned with a tiny rose. The club would hold events at the bar to raise money for needy community members, including phony weddings in which the most macho factory worker would dress up as the bride. The events were held mostly to raise funds for kids who needed surgery. In addition, grandma squirreled away money for decades and eventually saved enough to build a church in her hometown, the Polish village of Huta Przedborska.
Grandma hung up her bar apron for the last time on November 30, 1986 when she was 84. My grandfather died in his sleep that night, after closing the bar at 2 a.m. Grandma told me she wanted to keep going, but couldn’t run the operation by herself and didn’t want to hire anyone else. She lived another 14 years and died on February 16, 2001 at Henry Ford Hospital, the scene of her first U.S. job, just shy of her 99th birthday.