The sale of the stalwart Hygrade Deli was perhaps one of Southwest Detroit’s worst-kept secrets.
Stuart Litt, who’s run the iconic deli for the past 50 years, sold Hygrade to fellow restaurateur Chuck Nolen, the owner of another famous Detroit restaurant, Cutter’s Bar & Grill in Eastern Market, just before Christmas.
Murmurs about the sale had been circulating between diners for more than a month, but Nolen, longtime regulars, and staff wanted to give Litt a proper send-off before breaking the news to the public.
Unbeknownst to Litt until late Tuesday morning was that Mayor Mike Duggan and other local dignitaries will be presenting Litt with a Spirit of Detroit award on Friday for his dedication to the community.
“I was very surprised. I’m happy. I’m happy for Chuck. I’m happy for myself. It’s pretty much a complete surprise,” said Litt on Tuesday morning, just moments after reading a Detroit News article announcing the sale.
“That’s Detroit for you, can’t keep a secret,” chimed in a contractor.
Litt had previously planned to share the news of the sale on his business and personal Facebook accounts.
“You know, as people do when they retire and they go away,” says Litt.
That was two days before Christmas. Nolen told him to hold off and insisted that his public relations team would handle breaking the news. Little did Litt know, Nolen, veteran waitress Linda Holmes, and others were planning a celebration of Litt’s career behind his back.
Litt, 66, told reporters in March 2021 that we was looking for a buyer and hoped to retire soon after. Nolen, himself a fan of Hygrade’s “Meal in a Sandwich,” read about the sale in the newspaper and put the wheels into motion.
“When you ask ‘Why Hygrade?’ — it’s Hygrade, I mean, that kind of says it all,” says Nolen. “If you’ve experienced Hygrade, it’s an iconic place in the city of Detroit, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
Nolen says that aside from making some cosmetic upgrades — not much has changed about Hygrade’s interior since opening its doors in 1955 — he wants to make the transition of ownership slowly so as to preserve its character. He plans on bringing in a few workers from Cutter’s to help with lunchtime traffic, but says the existing crew will remain the same.
“That was one thing when Stu and I first talked, I gave him my word that I would make sure his legacy lived on,” says Nolen. “The man has been here for 50 years, has been dedicated to the city of Detroit, to our community, and you know, my spirit wouldn’t allow me to disrupt that. I’ve got to honor his legacy.”
Indeed, Litt has been behind the counter of the breakfast and lunch spot — frequented by local politicians, construction workers, hipsters, and cops alike — since he was 17 years old and headed to college at Wayne State University.
His father had just purchased the eatery and Litt started off working there during the summer, eventually coming on full-time when he father became ill. His dad recuperated, but once he came back to the job, Litt stayed and would go on to work in the deli six days a week over the next five decades.
Litt says the early 1980s were Hygrade’s heyday, with bustle of a Cadillac assembly plant nearby, but toward the end of that decade, he never left the shop, not because it was busy, but because he needed every dollar that came into the store — it was that slow.
Over the past decade or so as downtown has undergone tremendous redevelopment, Litt says business has also picked up. In recent years, Hygrade was featured in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the television series Detroit 1-8-7, and numerous music videos, of which Litt and Linda Holmes, a 30-year veteran of the deli, both made appearances as extras.
“That’s the part I’m going to miss,” says Litt. “That part was a blast.”
Part of what attracted Nolen to the business was the rapport that Holmes and other longtime staff have with their customers. She says that even if she doesn’t know everyone’s name, she remembers their faces, and can usually rattle off a regular’s order on queue.
“I love my customers. I have wonderful, great customers, they always look out for me, they always take care of me,” says Holmes.
As for Litt, he says he’ll spend the next several weeks getting the new crew acclimated. He says his father had exacting expectations of how the restaurant should be run and he made sure to keep with that attention to detail. After that, he and his wife plan to take some time to decompress and maybe do a little traveling.
“I’m almost 67, although I look 29,” jokes Litt. “I’ve been running around here for 50 years, six days a week, and lately into my later years I’ve been working longer and harder hours, and it’s not supposed to be that way. My body’s feeling it. I’ve been planning on this for a few years. I just didn’t know exactly when I would pull the trigger on selling the place.”
Litt’s retirement celebration will take place at 11 a.m. at Hygrade Deli, 3640 Michigan Ave.