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June 6, 2013When Ohio natives Keith McKendry and Tim Wojcik first opened Mister Spots restaurant on State Street's restaurant row in 1986, they literally put everything they had into it. The 23-year old entrepreneurs, high school friends and college roommates at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, dug through their pockets just to make change on their first day in business. A few times they'd politely ask a customer or two for exact change, leading them down the road to a nearby teller machine.
They all came back, though, and on a larger scale they've been coming back ever since. Mister Spots - named for a $3.00 kitten barely spared being python fodder when a Bowling Green, Ohio pet shop ran out of the usual reptile fare - has become the fast food industry's version of 1980s sitcom hot spot Cheers.
Cheesesteaks and hoagies, onion rings and waffle fries - not beer - keep business humming, but the people in charge are more than just an added bonus.
"I stop in any time I'm in town," former Michigan All-American and longtime NFL offensive lineman Jon Jansen, now a Big Ten Network analyst and entrepreneur, said recently. "I always stop in there. Keith and Tim are usually in there, and it's always great to see those guys.
"The best thing about them is they remember you, so we'll talk about old times, they'll catch you upon new things happening in town. Even if I don't go in to eat, I'll stop in to say 'hi' and talk. They're great people."
The combination has allowed them to weather tough economic climates and increased competition to remain in business for 26 years, most of their advertising coming through word of mouth.
Each August presents a new challenge, McKendry noted. Repeat customers are plentiful, but a good portion of them leave town after graduation each year.
"Drumming up business is about bringing awareness to students," he said. "There are 25,000 new freshmen who come to campus each fall we are trying to reach."
Sometimes, though, it only takes one to make an impact - especially if it's one of the most famous people on Earth.
The Day Tom Brady Ordered Wings
Hard work isn't the only ingredient to remaining in business for nearly three decades, especially in the restaurant business. It takes breaks, too, and a bit of luck.
Those traits come more often, though, to those who do things right, and so it came to pass on Thanksgiving Eve, 2009 for McKendry and Wojcik when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots traveled to Detroit for a Thanksgiving Day match-up with the Detroit Lions.
McKendry was at the bank and Wojcik on his way in when a na? employee took a message at the store - someone named Tom from New England had called to place an order, but he wanted to speak to the owners specifically.
"I said, 'Tom Who?'" McKendry recalled. "When he said, 'Tom Brady,' I said, 'Oh, really? The Tom Brady?'
"I thought it was just a joke. When he said, 'Tom said he'd call you later,'" I said, 'whatever.'"
Fortunately for McKendry and Wojcik, Brady was diligent in trying to get his linemen fed the night before the game, a Patriots quarterback tradition or it might just have been a craving for the wings, a favorite from his Michigan days.
Brady called again later that night after McKendry and his wife, Theresa, returned from a walk.
"Mister Spots was a great spot to go with my friends for great food and a fun environment. Keith was always so supportive of the football team, and it was fun for us to support them," Brady recalled. "The respect I have for Keith and his willingness to prepare and deliver the food to us before the game against the Lions was why I called back."
Feeding an NFL offensive line is like feeding a small army, so McKendry and Wojcik got to work early the next day on the huge order, one that included pans of onion rings and fries, literally hundreds of wings and dozens of hoagies.
That, though, was only half the battle. When McKendry and his wife showed up downtown Detroit at the Marriott where the Patriots were staying, they encountered a lobby filled with hundreds of fans and a few security guards skeptical of his story.
"They asked who my contact was, and I told them, 'Tom Brady.' They were like, 'right,'" McKendry recalled. "Then I remembered Tom had given me another name, so I gave it to them and they sent me up to the fifth floor. When we got there, there were two Detroit cops who stopped us there."
Years earlier, Brady had just been another popular Michigan athlete to eat at Mister Spots, generally left alone to eat in peace. He'd take time to joke with the employees, even betting McKendry Brady's San Francisco Giants would make it to the World Series before McKendry's Cleveland Indians.
"Now, it was unbelievable. You'd have thought we were going to see the President or something," McKendry said with a laugh. "But they finally let us through, and all of sudden the big linemen came in and asked, 'what are we eating?' Tom came through and told them what we had, gave us a big hug and physically introduced us individually to each of his offensive linemen."
That reception and the big order would have been more than enough, but McKendry got a bonus the next day on the way out of the stadium. His phone exploded with texts and calls when CBS announcer Jim Nantz mentioned Mister Spots on television as Brady's restaurant of choice for his linemen.
When he asked Brady how he could repay him for the free publicity, Brady would have none of it.
"He said, 'Keith, the guys loved the food, and it was great to see you and meet Theresa,'" McKendry recalled. "Then he told me to keep in touch."
McKendry didn't get off as easy, though, on his World Series bet with Brady, whose Giants won a title in 2010. Brady had forgotten the wager before McKendry reminded him, but he had a message for McKendry and Wojcik
Expect a call the next time he's in town.
"That one I will collect in Mister Spots credit," Brady said, paying them the ultimate compliment.
Serving A Legend
Mister Spots has maintained its share of loyal customers like Brady over the years, and it includes more of Michigan's biggest names. Recently retired NFL lineman and All-American Steve Hutchinson stopped in when his Seattle Seahawks were in Detroit for the 2006 Super Bowl, his appearance earning a mention in the city's newspapers.
The restaurant is a destination spot for Jansen, All-Big Ten lineman Jeff Backus, Heisman winner All-Pro safety Charles Woodson, All-American Jerame Tuman and several others, while Nike founder Phil Knight, ABC commentator Brent Musburger and ESPN personality (and Michigan alum) Rich Eisen are among those who have been spotted over the past several years. Eisen even gave Mister Spots his recommendation to Dan Patrick on Patrick's nationally syndicated show.
Former Michigan legend Bo Schembechler, though, might have been as responsible as anyone for helping the restaurant gain a following within the athletic department. The coach, health conscious after his second heart surgery in 1987, was a tuna and soup man and frequent visitor, and one of the reasons athletes often chose to use their department issued food vouchers at the restaurant.
McKendry and Wojcik were firmly established by their eighth or ninth year, starting to put money away and adding to the menu. They'd delivered to Schembechler frequently when he was coaching, but they saw even more of him in the store when he retired in 1989.
"He'd get a haircut next door and he'd stop in," Wojcik recalled. "Sometimes he'd just prop open the door, look inside and every once in a while yell, super loud, 'are you guys still making that shitty tuna salad?' All the customers in the store would stop and look, and he'd just walk away laughing."
They fed the coach one last time when he came in with his wife, Kathy, and son, Shemy on Nov. 16, 2006. This time Schembechler, recently hospitalized and in failing health, ordered a cheesesteak sandwich.
"We had talked to Shemy a few weeks ago and he said Bo had been ill but was hanging in there," Wojcik recalled. "We thought it was really weird when he ordered the cheesesteak - we all kind of looked at each other."
A day later, Schembechler passed away at the WXYZ Channel 7 studio preparing to film his show with sports anchor Don Shane.
His memory, though, lives on in a photo above the store's register, a shot of the coach in his younger days sporting his vintage block 'M' hat.
"To Keith, Tim and Mister Spots," it reads. "The best tuna sandwich on campus.
Serving A Fan Base
For years, McKendry and Wojcik set up shop in Michigan Stadium on game days, earning new fans and clientele. While football is the game, though, it's not the only game in town, evidenced by the different memorabilia adorning the walls.
On the south wall, it's a photo of hockey coach Red Berenson (whose son, Gordie, was Mister Spots' first customer in 1986) and Brendan Morrison celebrating Michigan's 1996 national championship. For hockey fans, the restaurant is the destination spot on nights before games at Yost Arena.
The lucky ones might even see former All-American and NHL all-star goaltender Marty Turco in front of the grill.
"I've been back there cooking," Turco admitted with a laugh. "The smell at Mister Spots there's nothing better. Sometimes I'll hear, 'what's Turco doing back there?' But I'll make my own Philly cheesesteak, grill it with mushrooms and onions. I like mine with just a little drizzle of ketchup and some waffle fries, call it a meal and don't talk to me for 10 minutes."
He also knows better than to come back to his summer place without a Philly chicken for his wife, he quipped, even though home is several hours north of Ann Arbor.
Those are the moments that make 26 years (a lifetime in the restaurant business, as evidenced by the dozens to the north and south of them who have come and gone over the years) all worth it for both McKendry and Wojcik - even the memories of 70- and 80-hour work weeks.
"My wife asked me the other day, 'would you do it again?'" McKendry said. "With the people I've met and how successful the business has been, I would do it all over again. It's been a good ride."
Wojcik agreed, adding the blood, sweat and tears put in have been repaid in full.
"Mister Spots is my vice, but it's the relationships that make them so successful," Turco said. "Business, like pretty much everything in life, is all about relationships, and they've got that one down pat. And by the way, they've got food you just want to die for."
Nearly three decades worth of satisfied customers would agree.