December 8 marks the day on which, in 2003, Edward Duba Sr. passed. As a way of observing the day, posted here is the profile of Edward Duba Sr. as it appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on May 12, 1988. The piece is written by Cathie Bloom.
Seated in a small banquet room with its subdued lighting, snowy white linens and artfully folded large blue napkins, Edward Duba Sr. is the perfect host. Although the running of the family restaurant has largely been turned over to three of his sons and a daughter, Ed Duba is as much an institution as the restaurant which bears his name—Duba’s.
A barrel-chested man, Duba’s complexion is ruddy and his once-sandy hair is gray. Sitting in the midst of the business he helped build, he began by saying, “One thing that really made me feel bad was that I never got a college education. I was right in that Depression. I entered high school in 1927, and graduation in 1931 wearing the same sweater that my mother bought me as a freshman. It (college) is one of those wishes, you actually don’t know if you’d been better off if you got it.”
His mother, Viola Milanowski, had graduated from St. Aldelbert’s School before she met and married Felix Duba. Felix was 12 when he left Poland with an older brother.
“The nerve they had. They went first to the lumber camps in Minnesota before coming to Grand Rapids in about 1887 to work in the foundry,” Duba recalled.
After Felix and Viola were married they lived in the Polish enclave near St. Isadore’s Church where they raised four sons—Bert, Harry, Phil and Ed. Born on March 3, 1914, Ed attended St. Isadore’s School.
“I couldn’t find anything to do so I went to Davis Technical High School and took typing. Next, I went to work at McInerney Spring and Wire. You’d average about 10 cents an hour and oh, the blisters. After five days, I knew factory wasn’t for me,” he continued.
“In 1927, our folks built a new home at 525 Eastern Avenue. With the Crash, they lost the $700 they had in the bank and their insurance. My dad managed to work one to three days a week at American Seating. To help out, my brother Harry and I did wallpapering for a dollar a room. I’d get a buck or two at the end of the week but the rest of the money went to the folks so they wouldn’t lose the house.”
“People were good. They helped each other. If you were painting the house on Saturday, you’d end up with five more painters.”
For a few months, Duba rewound auto generator armatures at a garage on the corner of Louis Street and Campau Avenue NW. His eyesight was good and his fingers nimble. It was piecework and he earned about a dollar a day. On his lunch hour he used to go up to the third floor to the Brogger Recreation Bowling Hall.
“I used to watch them bowl and finally on day, the guy who worked there suggested I try it. I kind of liked it and it was cheap entertainment at 10 cents a game,” Duba recalled.
Finally, his brother-in-law got him a job at Wurzburg’s which paid National Recovery Act wages of $14 for a six-day work week.
Looking back, Duba recalled, “A lot of people forget about (Mayor) George Welsh. Nobody was working. Welsh used city money to buy essentials like potatoes and flour and issued script to keep businesses going. People criticized him, and I’m sure he made mistakes, but he was always interested in doing things that benefited everybody.”
Although he no longer worked near a bowling alley, Duba gradually became a reasonably good bowler.
In 1935, Al Wenger, owner of Wegner Recreation and Bowling, 629 Leonard St. NW., offered him a job as a counterman. “It paid $25 a week so I had to try it,” Duba recalled.
Duba had good reason. On October 15, 1938, he and Rosaline Bohr were married and they would eventually have seven children.
“We had entered the war by the time our son, Ed Jr., was born. He arrived about 4 a.m. and when I went back home, they told me I couldn’t go to sleep because this was the day we had to get our sugar-rationing cards. I was told to apply for sugar stamps for the baby. They asked me for his name, but I didn’t know what to say so the sugar board named [h]im Ed Jr. He was the youngest child with a sugar card,” Duba said with a laugh.
Al Wegner and Duba got along well together. In 1940 Duba turned down a job with the Brunswick Bowling Corp. and instead became a partner in Wenger’s business.
Their Class C liquor license was in Duba’s name and he managed the Leonard Street Bowling Alley so Wenger could concentrate on other bowling operations.
The bowling alley was damaged by fire in 1945, and in 1948 Wenger Recreation was sold with the provision that Duba would remain with the new owners for a year to teach them to run the business.
In August 1949 Duba completed his obligation, and Wenger and he bought the Club Seville which was in the Madison Square business district.
“When I first went into business with Mr. Wenger my dad, God love him, advised me not to let my partner put even 10 cents more into the business than I did. For an immigrant, he was smart. He loaned me $2,500 so I’d have what I needed. I’m extremely proud of the fact that Al Wenger and I conducted all our business with a simple handshake,” he recalled.
“Club Seville was a popular spot but we had no idea how to run this place with dancing every night. We couldn’t cope with that music and the clientele was different from a bowling alley.
We eliminated dancing, except on Friday and Saturday evenings. The owner of the building also wanted us to take care of renting the four apartments upstairs.”
Within three months “we both decided that we just couldn’t take it and we threw in the towel,” Duba continued.
That, however, proved to [be] a blessing, he said.
“In the meantime we were looking around for a place and about a month later, we saw this property with a sign, ‘will build to suit,’” he continued.
“We knew nothing about the restaurant business. My father-in-law and mother did the cleaning and we hired a woman who made the best chili in the world, but that was all she could cook. Then we hired a man who ran the restaurant in a downtown department store. We were getting a lot of bowling banquets, but we had no control over the food and people were complaining.
Then one day, a man was tired of hotel cooking and he wanted to work in a restaurant that didn’t specialize in ethnic foods,” he continued.
“We paid him $65 week and agreed to increase it to $85 if he doubled the lunch business. Since no one else was serving prime rib, he suggested we offer a thick slice of prime rib on rye for 65 cents. It really caught on, and then he suggested that we hire his brother as night chef.”
Duba claims the night chef “introduced lobster tail entrees to Grand Rapids.”
The business was successful beyond their wildest dreams but they were not without problems.
“One day this big Cadillac drove up. Two fellows in black suits and hats came in to ask us if we were satisfied with our jukebox. We told them we were, but they insisted that we needed another machine with a different union label. We told them that we intended to keep our machine and they finally left,” he said.
After talking to police, Duba and his partner suspected out-of-towners were trying to move in on the music business in Grand Rapids.
The two strangers returned to the restaurant and were confronted by Duba and Wenger. “Fortunately, we never saw either of them again,” said Duba.
The second problem arose when Duba discovered that Al Mengas, Mengas’ brother and their best waitress had left town.
“I didn’t know a thing about prime rib. I rushed to Gordon Foods, picked up what I thought would carry us through. We served ham sandwiches for the next few days until we could find another chef. I saw to it that we’d never get stuck like that again. But you know, if Al and his brother walked through the door today I’d hire them in a second,” he said.
Duba would eventuality buy out Al Wenger’s share of the business and convert it from a cafeteria to a restaurant.
He also continued to bowl until late one afternoon a group of businessmen came in for drinks and eventually stayed for dinner.
“I saw to it that they were taken care of, and before leaving, I went over and asked if there was anything else they needed. As I was walking away, I heard one of them say, ‘That so and so, we’re giving him our business and he’s going bowling.’ It bothered me and I thought about it all night and in the morning I decided that I couldn’t mix business and pleasure.
“I had just borrowed $35,000 to buy out my partner and enlarge the restaurant and I had a family to care for, so I never touched a bowling ball again.”
Through the years, Duba’s added dining space, banquet rooms and parking to accommodate diners.
“When we started out most of our business was in the bar. Now most of our business is in the restaurant,” he said.
Later, Edward Jr. became the general manager. Tom manages the bar. Mike is the head chef and Sandy is a hostess and bookkeeper. The Dubas’ other three children, Sharon Kirkwood, Mary Christine Thrall and Kim have not been as active in the business.
Although, Rosaline Duba has never been involved in the business, her influence is still essential to the success of the family and the business.
Each Saturday night, Duba still puts on his best suits and is the restaurant’s host. The rest of the week, he comes in for a few hours each day. It is obvious that he loves the business and his customers.
“I don’t have the command of the language the way I’d like but I’m not an introvert. I cater to the women, they are the ones who pick the restaurants. We love prom nights and the wedding rehearsal dinners. These people are more than customers; they’re friends,” he concluded.