It seems like every grandfather has some neighborhood business he loves. It must come with the territory … like working a slide rule. Sometimes it is a bar, or mechanic, or hardware store. For my grandfather, it was Scotty Simpson’s Fish and Chips (Scotty’s to those in the know).
My grandfather died at age 94 in January 2017. Less than a year before, he insisted he take as much of the family as possible – my mother, father, two aunts and two uncles, one of my cousins and me – to be treated by him at Scotty’s. It was to celebrate my aunt and uncle being up from North Carolina.
My grandparents raised their family in the neighborhood. Scotty’s was their place and he wanted to share it with us. He was not alone. For many people who lived in or around Brightmoor or Old Redford, the little neighborhood fish joint has been a very important and a part of their family traditions.
Scotty’s has been located at 22200 Fenkell since it opened in 1950 when James (Scotty) Simpson opened the doors and started serving fish and chips. It’s lasted for almost seven decades by simply sticking to the basics. The patterned carpet and wooden and vinyl chairs are still there, and through three owners the recipes have stayed the same.
They fry their own fish, and even cut their own fries. The only thing they don’t make is the rolls, which they get from a local bakery.
“Once I get them in the door, they’re hooked,” is the motto of current owner Harry Barber, who still mans the fryer.
Since the only places that can beat the prices are fast food restaurants, and they don’t have Scotty’s fresh fish brought in from Halifax, Nova Scotia, it tends to be a self- fulfilling prophecy.
The heart of the restaurant has always been being a neighborhood business. The patrons are mostly locals or former locals who stop in for lunch or for dinner.
No one is more familiar with this than Barber. He started out as a busboy and dishwasher on his first day of high school in 1966. He continued working there, gaining more responsibilities, until eventually purchasing Scotty’s in 2002.
His former boss, Sean Gilmore, had initially taken over the fryer from his father, who came to the U.S. from Ireland, started the business and turned it into a neighborhood staple.
A flaw in being a beloved neighborhood icon is that it will often live or die with that very community.
In the harder times, it was that loyalty from local residents and former ones that kept the lights on. For a long time that was almost all it did.
When Barber bought the place, Gilmore was about to shut it down. He could afford to keep the doors open, pay Barber, and that was about it. Barber didn’t change anything inside and over the years has put some money into light advertising and created a website.
He says he essentially “bought a job” and worked to keep the restaurant going as the once-thriving, blue-collar neighborhood changed and people started to move out to the suburbs, or even out of state.
With that migration, the local businesses took a hit. Especially problematic was the loss of the large Irish and Polish and often Catholic population that traditionally ate fish on Friday.
While not Catholic, my grandfather usually went to Scotty’s on Friday with friends from a nearby house of worship. He kept coming, despite moving out of the city to the suburbs in the late 1980s.
This was, and is, hardly a rare case for Scotty’s patrons. Still, many of the people who moved from the old neighborhood love the memories and the food and frequent the restaurant and bring their families.
Just recently, Barber had a group of patrons who brought a baby in, making it the fourth generation of the family to eat at Scotty’s. Locals, former locals, and now the descendants of former locals, all dine together.
Today the revitalization of Detroit has brought more people to live in city, and they are eager to experience a neighborhood and feel and be a part of the Detroit’s history.
Scotty’s just happens to be waiting.
It has been named best Fish and Chips in Detroit by “Hour Detroit” magazine and best seafood in metro Detroit by Channel 4 in 2016.
Despite the success, Scotty’s has not lost the relaxed neighborhood feel. While Barber says he may not remember the name of regulars, he always remembers their order.
Friday continues to be the busiest day of the week with lines often going out the door.
Perhaps the best example of how Scotty’s has held onto its roots is Ellie Hawkins. Now 18, she started on staff at 14 and is currently going to school to be a nurse.
“It is a nice family restaurant,” says Hawkins, “Everyone is family, even if they aren’t really.”
Family does seem to be the operative word. At Scotty’s there is a family atmosphere, a staff that says they are like family, and patrons who’ve made it a family tradition … like my grandfather.
Editor’s Note: This small business feature is sponsored by Bank of America. To learn more about Bank of America’s many programs and resources for small business owners visit: https://www.bankofamerica.com/smallbusiness/business-financing.go.