For 112 Years, Sullivan and Son Funeral Directors Have Served the Royal Oak Community
BY REBECCA CALAPPI
LBN Community Series
When Eric Page’s father died in 2014, there was no doubt in his mind who he’d call first: Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Directors.
“Even if we didn’t know the Lopes as well as we do, there’d be absolutely no doubt who we’d call,” said Page. “They’ve taken care of my grandmother, my grandfather, and my father. You know for sure that everything’s going to be done correctly. What the family name stands for is the utmost dignity for your family member and there’s never a doubt.”
Mike Lope (L), John Sullivan (C), and Jim Sullivan (R)
Page is childhood friends with Michael Lope, the great-grandson of William Sullivan, the founder of Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Directors. Michael, along with his father Ray Lope, mother Meg (Sullivan) Lope, uncles John Sullivan and Bill Sullivan, aunt Marty (Sullivan) McGinnity and cousin Jim Sullivan, now run the family business.
Since many people hosted funerals in their own house, there was no need for a funeral home, just a storefront.
“William had a livery stable in downtown Royal Oak and he knew a cabinet maker, so together they could make caskets and get people to the cemetery,” said Lope.
The year was 1906 and the storefront was located on Main Street in Royal Oak.
In 1939, after twins Meg and Marty were born, William Sullivan moved his family to a house on 11 Mile Road. This would become the permanent home of the family business.
About that time, having family funerals at home was going out of vogue and more people began turning to funeral homes for all their needs. The funeral home had two chapels at the time, and the family lived above the business.
In 1945, the family moved to another house to make room for William’s expanding business. By the 1960s and 1970s, William had passed away, leaving his son, Jim in charge.
John Sullivan is a co-owner. “I saw what my grandfather and father did, and respected them. We had a good name in the community and I wanted to help with that. We’re proud to have the fourth generation here to keep it going. We’re going to be here for a long time,” he said.
“We really want people to feel comfortable when they come in, like they’re home. We want them to welcome their guests in a relaxed environment.”
Today, the Sullivan family is as dedicated as ever to providing compassionate, dignified services for families at two locations, including Utica. The old homestead on 11 Mile Road in Royal Oak is still the site of the funeral home, but after several expansions and additions, it’s difficult to see the original footprint from outside.
“We’re always putting money into our buildings,” said Lope. “We really want people to feel comfortable when they come in, like they’re home. We want them to welcome their guests in a relaxed environment.”
Both locations recently added a large chapel, “because so many people don’t identify with a church. We put the addition on to serve that niche,” said Lope.
Additionally, Sullivan & Son offers specialized services that many other funeral homes don’t.
“We’re one of the leaders in the area for green burials, which is basically environmentally friendly burial. No embalming or traditional vaults. The idea is to get people back to the earth as soon as possible. We have two to three green burial seminars a year and probably do 20 a year,” said Lope. “It’s a personal preference, though. Our whole focus is to make sure our staff is educated and families get what they want. We need to make sure we’re experts in all the fields.”
Lope explained that Sullivan & Son provides a full range of services for whatever a family might need.
“The whole thing for us is to try and offer as many options as possible. Pre-arranging funerals helps people get what they’re looking for, but once someone passes away, it’s important for families to know we’re there for them,” said Lope. “Our biggest thing as funeral directors, is to help figure out what’s best for families. Customer service is at the heart of what we do. Whatever it is people are looking for, we’re here for them.”
The Sullivan family roots run deep in Royal Oak as does their sense of duty to the community to which they belong. They are major supporters of the Boys and Girls Club, and served with the Rotary, St. Vincent de Paul, historical societies and many more. Mortuary science students at Wayne State University are invited to use the apartment at the funeral home when they are completing their apprenticeship as well.
“Community service is paramount. We don’t do it just for business purposes, we truly believe in our community,” said Lope.
For more than 112 years, Sullivan and Son Funeral Directors has been the shoulder the Royal Oak community leans on in sad times. It’s the oldest business in the city and has high hopes of being able to serve the community that has been so good to them for many years to come.
“I get enjoyment from so many parts of it. It’s the challenge of seeing the next level,” Sheena said. “I don’t want to be 1,000 stores across the country, at least not today. The vision is there, but I want to focus on a true feeling of accomplishment I get when I can help the youth understand more than they did yesterday.”
Sheena is part owner of Tania’s, a family-owned pizza joint in Royal Oak. Together with his father, mother, sister and brothers, they consistently craft pizza by the slice and by the pie made from simple, fresh ingredients using original recipes.
CO-OWNER OF TANIA’S PIZZA
“The sauce is mom’s and the dough is mom’s recipe. The garlic seasoning we put on top is mom’s. We make our own ranch and the garlic dip is mine,” said Sheena. “It’s simple ingredients. Our sauce is five ingredients. Our dough is four ingredients. We don’t need a lot of complexity. It’s good because it’s simple.”
Those simple ingredients added to the next-level customer service each client receives, earned Tania’s a nearly cult-like following for the last 32 years.
It all started when Sheena’s father, Sam, immigrated to the United States in 1967. Leaving war-torn Iraq behind, Sam Sheena landed in Highland Park just in time to witness the Detroit riots.
“My dad wanted to be in the pizza business,” said Amos Sheena. “He’s always been an entrepreneur. He’s always done his own thing and he’s done many things. At 43 years old, he had a stay-at-home mother of four to support and he had to take a job delivering pizzas for Domino’s. He was enamored.”
“I go in there a lot. I always joke around like it’s my Cheers. I like the pizza, so I get different combinations. I’ve pretty much had everything on their menu.”
In 1987, the business now called Tania’s went up for sale. Sam Sheena borrowed money from his father-in-law and bought it. He named it after his only daughter, Tania.
“He was in love with the Domino’s model, but he didn’t know the model. We focused on the kitchen at first,” said Amos Sheena. “You have to stand out some way. How do we stand out? We have stuffed pizza. We take two thin layers of dough and put pizza stuff inside.”
Today, Sam Sheena is mostly retired, but is still at the store every day. Sam’s wife, Muntaha, also helps out a few times a week. “If we’re short on the schedule, we lean on her. She’s our prepper,” said Amos Sheena.
While the hard work of the family has kept the business thriving for 32 years, it’s the food and atmosphere that makes Chad Chilton a regular.
“I go in there a lot. I always joke around like it’s my Cheers. I like the pizza, so I get different combinations. I’ve pretty much had everything on their menu,” he said.
The menu ranges from Tania’s famous pizza to pasta, salads, subs and gluten-free. Additionally, online ordering and delivery makes meal planning a snap.
Tania’s also has a full selection of beverages ranging from wine to craft beers and liquor.
Jim Carlin of Royal Oak is also a long-time customer.
“I’ve been going to Tania’s since Amos was 19,” he said. “Most often we get pizza and salad. Or if we are having pasta that night, I’ll get some parmesan bread sticks. It’s clean, the food is excellent, the service is good. Amos is both proprietor and friend. It’s a good family place. I would recommend it to anybody who likes pizza.”
Wilma Andrews has never missed an Andrews family reunion. Even after moving from Berkley to Denver, her entire year’s schedule is arranged so that she is free to travel and to spend a week socializing with kids, grandkids, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and friends and attend a huge reunion picnic at Lake St. Clair Metropark.
But to Andrews, just as important during her yearly visit as that picnic, is at least one visit to Ray’s Ice Cream on Coolidge in Royal Oak.
“Ray’s has been part of my life for as long as I can remember,” Andrews says. “When my four children were young and we’d be going somewhere as a family, if we drove anywhere near Ray’s, the kids would laugh and chant, ‘Ray’s ICE cream! Ray’s ICE cream!’ And we usually did end up stopping there for cones, sodas and sundaes.”
“My grandfather, Raymond Stevens, opened Ray’s Ice Cream in 1958,” says third-generation owner, Tom Stevens, “and ran it with my dad, Dale Stevens, and my grandmother, Bernice.”
“My grandfather had worked at Mints Dairy and loved the business. When the dairy closed, my grandfather decided to open a facility to manufacture ice cream. He found some affordable property on Coolidge and built the building where we continue to operate.”
“My grandfather was only planning to be a wholesaler,” explains Tom, “but my grandmother wanted to also have an ice cream parlor. Ray found a diner closing in Detroit and bought the countertops for our soda fountain area, and the fountain became half of the business! I wish my Grandma was here to see it!”
“I fell in love with the place,” he says.
And now a fourth generation is being trained to take over and continue the business.
Tom’s nephew Tommy Shimshock, with a civil engineering degree from Purdue University, has worked at Ray’s since 2004 and is the production manager though, he says, smiling, “My title depends on the day.”
Nephew and production manager Tom Shimshock with co-worker Liam O’Brien
On this day, he and co-worker Liam O’Brien and Tom’s nephew, Stephen Shimshock (who has a double-business degree), will be making their vanilla ice cream.
“It happens to be my favorite flavor,” Tom says.
“Nowadays,’’ explains Tom, “the vanilla is like liquid gold. The supplier won’t even ship it anymore. We have to pick it up.”
Each ten-gallon batch uses two-to-three ounces of the precious, pure vanilla, and all of the ice creams are slow-churned to make.
“The equipment is new,” Tommy says. “But the ice cream is made the old-school way. It’s a slow process.”
In spite of the time-consuming production, Ray’s Ice Cream can create 2000 gallons of ice cream per week.
Half gallons of the ice cream can be bought at many area grocery stores, including: Hollywood Market, Holiday Market, Nino Salvaggio’s, Papa Joe’s, and Westborn Market on Woodward. The ice cream at Ray’s Ice Cream can also be hand-packed for take-out sale, and many popular flavors are available freshly packaged.
Ray’s Ice Cream also makes special orders of novelty, molded cordial and ice cream designs for parties, showers and other celebrations and holidays, with many photos of these creations on their website.
Tom’s daughter, Jenna Stevens, who has an art degree – and a love for her father’s business – schedules the many counter helpers who keep the lines of customers moving on hot, summer nights.
Bryce Everly, a pre-med student at the University of Michigan, has worked at Ray’s Ice Cream for three summers, and he enjoys the regular customers and making their orders just the way they like them.
“We get all sorts of great regulars every day,” Bryce says. “One gets a chocolate shake, light on the chocolate; another gets a vanilla shake; another gets a hot fudge sundae but with different types of ice cream each time.”
“And the weird thing is,” he adds, “most of our regulars are normal weight, even coming here daily!”
“All of our customers, and staff, are amazing,” Tom Stevens says. “I’m very excited to be continuing such a great business with another generation of its founding family.”
Ray’s Ice Cream
4233 Coolidge Highway
Royal Oak, MI 48073
Carol Medford smiles as she recalls the time when, at the age of 46, her vision began to change.
“All of a sudden, the print of my morning newspaper was blurry. I found myself squinting and, of course, positioning the paper further and further from my eyes, but my arms are only so long!” she laughs.
“I’d always gotten regular eye exams and had contacts for nearsightedness, but I’d just moved to the Royal Oak area and did not yet have an eye doctor. My dad suggested I visit his optometrist, Dr. Ray Salerno.”
“When I went for my first visit, I felt like I was seeing an old friend,” Medford says. “When I shared with Dr. Salerno that I liked my contacts and didn’t want to have to fuss with reading glasses – because caring for three toddler grandchildren kept me too busy to keep track of glasses – he carefully fit me with mono-vision contact lenses that allowed me to see wonderfully, both far and near, with no glasses needed.”
In the newly remodeled Royal Oak office on Main Street between 11 Mile and 12 Mile Roads that he shares with Dr. David Chorney, Ray Salerno (OD Diplomate, American Board of Optometry) talks about his practice and his recent move to Royal Oak from his previous location in Bingham Farms.
“As independent optometrists, I love what we do,” Dr. Salerno explains. “We are able to get to know our patients and to take time with them. We correct vision with glasses and lenses of all types. We diagnose and treat minor pathologies and injuries. And, importantly, because we know our patients, we can detect changes in their general and visual health and make proper referrals to appropriate specialists.”
One of the tools that Dr. Salerno uses is the Optos retinal imaging camera, which provides a diagnostic map of the patient’s retina, the sensory layer in the back of the eye.
“When you take that picture, you can see if the patient has glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration, diabetes effects – and you can refer them to the proper neurologist, internist, or glaucoma or retinal specialist.”
“And here,” he adds, “we can prepare patients for that visit by explaining what the specialist might not have time to address.”
Another condition that the Optos detects is retinal detachment.
“It’s important for people to know that if they ever start to experience sudden ‘flashes’ and floaters, or loss of vision, retinal detachment may be occurring and immediate treatment is necessary,” Dr. Salerno says. “The Optos camera can confirm such a diagnosis.”
As a neighborhood practice, Dr. Chorney and Dr. Salerno are able to make other types of recommendations for patients, also.
“We are able to ask them, ‘What do you like to do?’ And they say, ‘I knit!’ or ‘I play golf,’ ‘I’m always on the computer,’ or ‘I play hockey.’ And we can provide the perfect glasses, lenses and eye care for them.”
“It’s such a thrill,” Dr. Salerno says, “to have patients who actually walk here for a visit from their homes and offices. Royal Oak is such a wonderful destination location. People can fit in a great lunch, dinner or shopping around their appointment.”
“And,” he adds, “We have free parking in the back, convenient metered parking right in front – and a team of the friendliest, hand-picked staff including a certified optician, Val Mason, as our office manager.”
“As independents who, in the wake of more department and even grocery stores offering vision centers with what we consider to be assembly line-type service,” says Dr. Salerno, “at Main Street Eye Care, we are glad to be here to serve this easily accessed area and its children, parents, and grandparents: our community — and our neighbors.”
Main Street Eye Care
817 N. Main Street
Royal Oak, MI 48067
A lot of crazy things can happen in a car wash. Just ask Bruce Milen or his son Jason Milen, second- and third-generation owners of Jax Kar Wash.
Jason & Bruce Milen, Owners of Jax Kar Wash
While they haven’t witnessed anything like the classic “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode — in which Larry David and Cheryl Hines get stuck in the malfunctioning car wash after she has just downed a dose of colon cleanser — the Milens have their own hilarious stories to laugh about.
Bruce recalls one woman who came in for full service.
“Our final guy put her in the car. She drove off and, unbeknownst to her, one of our guys was still in the back seat.”
Jason remembers one inebriated man who went through with his convertible top down.
They’ve also encountered bags of marijuana left in cars, interiors reeking of pot odor, the guy who laid a gun down on the counter when he was paying for his service (“the cashier freaked out,” he says), and another who left a loaded gun on the seat of the car (“we had to call the customer to get it out—we won’t touch them,” Jason says).
And then, says Bruce, there was the pet owner whose dog had just pooped on the floor, and she left the pile there for the attendants to deal with.
Just another day at Jax.
Effervescent cashier Rose Thompkins greets customers in Jax’s bustling waiting area in Birmingham with the big windows and the long racks that hold everything from candy bars to car mats. Air fresheners are big sellers. The most popular scent among the 25 or so types Jax sells, according to Thompkins, is Little Tree’s Black Ice.
“Definitely Black Ice,” a customer at the register agrees. “It’s good and neutral.”
Here you can also find cell phone accessories, auto wax, towels and cold drinks. Jason says the front stuff isn’t a big part of the business, it’s just for customer convenience.
Marty Weissman watches the steam and suds through the window, waiting for his Mercedes SUV to emerge from the conveyor blower.
“I’ve been coming here for 10 years,” Weissman says, “and this place ranks better than most for the service and the way you can get in and out quickly.”
Weissman, who lives a few blocks from the car wash, is a member of Jax’s Unlimited Club Plan, for which he pays $35 a month. That gives him up to twice-daily full-service (inside and out) washings and discounts on special services, detailing and merchandise. Today, a radio frequency identification reader (RFID) scanned the FastPass sticker at the bottom of his rear windshield after he entered the car wash, without having to hand someone cash — moving things along even more swiftly.
Somewhere, Jack Milen, who founded Jax in 1953 at the corner of Six Mile and Meyers in Detroit, is smiling at the innovations his son Bruce, 70, and grandson Jason, 48, have implemented since his passing in 2003: The RFID scanner; the super-suds, eco-friendly detergents; the ability to use credit cards for monthly payments (Jax had a Club Plan starting in 1956, but because credit cards had not been invented, customers had to pay a yearly fee up front); and the addition of the exterior-only option, so customers can stay in their cars.
“It’s less expensive and appeals to a whole different market,” says Jason.
Over 65 years, the Jax motto, “always put the customer first,” has served the company well, although there was a short, regrettable period when that wasn’t the case: In 1998, the family sold the business to a national chain, which ignored the customer and tried but failed to take the company public. Bruce bought Jax back in 2001, and it has stayed on track ever since. Bruce and Jason both run it together. Bruce does day-to-day operations. Jason does marketing and is in charge of social media.
Jason remembers working for Bruce every Sunday when he was 8 or 9 years old.
“I’d have to clean all the shelves in the lobby — I got a dollar,” he recalls. Starting at age 14, he learned every aspect of the business and watched it grow. Jax currently boasts eight locations in Oakland County and another, the newest, in Macomb County. Bruce says further expansions are planned.
“I love the business,” Jason says. “I love our great customers and our great team members—some have been here 20 years.” In all, there are 300 full-time team members and 200 more part-timers.
The biggest challenge the Milens face are the bottlenecks: The days when nobody comes in, and then all of a sudden six cars are there at the same time for full service. Jax tries to make the experience 25 minutes or less, but when people have to wait, they get mad and post nasty reviews on social media.
“We’re not perfect, but we try to be,” says Jason. “We have a quality guarantee, so we ask that if somebody didn’t have a perfect experience to tell us about it and let us fix it instead of going away mad and posting a bad review on the Internet.”
He and his staff monitor all of the social media comments, good and bad, and he responds to any complaints within one working day. His attendants provide a checklist to every car to review after service, and he hopes people take a look before they leave.
“We’re in the people business,” he says. “We just happen to wash cars.”
Some Fun Jax Facts
Since 1953, Jax has washed millions of cars. At least.
All that water and dirt that rolls off your car is separated by a system that sends the water to a sewage treatment plant to be neutralized, while the dirt falls into a pit that gets carted away.
The soaps are eco-friendly, designed to break down before the blower hits the car at the end of the cycle.
Despite summer being a big season for car washing, winter is by far Jax’s busiest time because of all the road salt.
A full-service wash takes seven team members: two to vacuum, two to drive, and three to towel dry. When it’s busy, Jax employs up to 20 team members at a time.
The worst cleaning mess is vomit; biohazard suits and goggles have to be worn. That goes for blood, often present when cop cars are brought in.
34745 Woodward Ave.
Birmingham, MI 48009
27054 Woodward Ave.
Royal Oak, MI 48067
Phone: (248) 547-3450
2835 W. Maple Rd.
Troy, MI 48084
Rochester Hills, Southfield (Telegraph Rd., Southfield Rd.), West Bloomfield, Auburn Hills and Clinton Township
You never want something so good to end, but for the Dean family, it’s time.
Their announcement on Facebook was this: “To everything there is a season, and now it is time to announce the closing of Superior Fish. For over 75 years we have had the privilege of being of service to Royal Oak and the Greater Metropolitan Detroit area. We sincerely appreciate and thank you for your patronage and support. Many thanks to our coworkers who have helped to make Superior Fish …..SUPERIOR! Our last ‘O FISH AL’ day of full service will be Saturday June 16th. The week of June 18 we will have a Superior FROZEN Sale. Follow us on our website / Facebook for more details. Superior Fish & the Dean Family THANK YOU and may your future be SUPERIOR!”
Kevin Dean is only 58 years old, but he has worked in the family business for 50 years, following the mantra that his father, John, instilled in Kevin and his brother David, 61: “Honesty is our policy. Always be honest with your customers and suppliers. Respect them. Repay their loyalty with your loyalty.”
John passed away in 2011. David, Kevin, their wives, their kids and many employees have carried on the retail and wholesale business — where you could find gorgeous specimens of king crab, shrimp, flounder, grouper, haddock, halibut, lake perch, lobster or octopus — ever since.
In Royal Oak, where development has gone crazy for the last three decades, Superior Fish’s location at 11 Mile and 4th Street with the large parking lot behind has been viewed as Mecca for location, location, location.
“People have been making offers for many, many years,” says Kevin. “But that’s not the main reason we’re closing. It’s a myriad of reasons.” He doesn’t specify, but says to read between the lines.
Everything aligned, he says, that this was the time to sell. Yet he also says it feels totally surreal that this is happening. “We will miss the community very much,” he says. “So much of our lives and family gatherings were spent here.”
Working behind the counter at the register, Kevin’s daughter Stephanie Dean, 20, says she’s never worked anywhere else but Superior Fish, except babysitting. “They (her parents) brought us here when we were born instead of our house, so it’s our second home.” She’s excited about the next chapter of her life, but feels sad, too.
So does Jerry Schmidt of Troy, a 30-year customer, who says he heard the news and just felt like he had to stop in and buy something. “I’m just kind of roving here, thinking about the stone crab claws I used to buy and how my dear friend, now departed, used to come in and spend $400 for holidays every year on oysters and make oyster stew for everyone.”
Cathy Burr of Ferndale is equally devastated about the closing. She came in for the makings of ceviche. “I am so sad to see it close. It’s been here my whole life.”
309 E. 11 Mile Rd.
Royal Oak, MI 48067