“The hippopotamus was about from here to the coffee aisle.”
That was the first snatch of conversation I heard on a recent Tuesday morning after walking into Goodrich’s Shop-Rite to look for co-owner Steve Scheffel.
Working behind his ludicrously well-stocked wine counter, Scheffel, 66, hears a lot of tall tales from globetrotting Michigan State University profs and students.
But I was there to learn some local history. Goodrich’s, a mom-and-pop grocery store with an international reach, celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer — no small feat in the era of Meijer and Sam’s Club.
Scheffel was busy with Safari Man, so I looked around for interesting-looking customers. That’s not a problem on Tuesday, senior citizen discount day, when you can’t swing a sausage without slapping someone in the face.
In less than a minute, I was chatting with amiable Ernst Floeter, 89, who came to the United States in 1944 as a P.O.W., captured by Americans on D-Day. Floeter was repatriated to Germany after the war, but liked America so much that he came back for good 11 years later. He still misses German bread, though, and drives to Goodrich’s every week from Grand Ledge for it.
“It gives me something to chew on,” he said.
Marcia Spencer has been a customer for 40 years, following in her mother’s footsteps. That day, she ran into a friend she hadn’t seen in four years.
“We come here to socialize as much as anything else,” she said. “I know the people here.”
When Spencer’s mother was dying, the store’s staff offered to deliver her groceries. Her eyes moistened at the recollection: “Nobody said that to me at Meijer.”
When you talk to Goodrich’s staff, most of which have been with the store since the 1970s, you often hear the phrase “one thing led to another.” Scheffel’s father, Robert Scheffel, married into the family and the business during World War II, needed a job, and one thing — you know the rest. Young Steve grew up in the store and kept working there while going to Sexton High School and studying political science at MSU. After he married in 1971, Scheffel’s plan was to stay at Goodrich’s only until his wife, Marilyn, finished her degree, but “one thing,” et cetera.
Now Scheffel co-owns the store with his uncle, Bruce Goodrich, and aunt, Shirley Goodrich, along with his sister, Mary Beth Scheffel, and general manager Fred Savage, who came to work with Bruce as an MSU student in the early 1970s.
Quiet, dependable Savage is the perfect foil for urbane, antsy Scheffel. In his wide green grocer’s apron, Savage looks at home among the aisles. Scheffel’s white hair, craggy face and faraway squint suggest a Welsh wanderer-poet fallen from grace, finding consolation in a tiny port among far-flung bills of sale.
Talking wine with the worldly types like Michigan author Jim Harrison is fair consolation.
“On a given day, you talk to somebody from China, India, Japan,” Scheffel said, stowing his pen behind his ear. “Historians, English profs, symphony musicians, engineers, chemists, head coaches.”
Scheffel’s grandfather, Al Goodrich, was born and raised in Lansing, the son of Welsh and German immigrants. During World War I, Scheffel’s great-grandfather Anglicized the family name, Gutekanst, to Goodrich.
After working for a while at the REO factory, Al Goodrich slowly built up his own trucking firm in the 1920s until a fire destroyed most of the trucks. He started Goodrich’s Shop-Rite and Sinclair gas station in 1937 on St. Joseph Street near Clare Street on the near west side.
It was a small operation with about a dozen employees. Mom and pop — Al and his wife, Marie — lived next door to the store. They slaughtered chickens in the basement, made the rounds of local farms for bulk eggs and produce, ran a lunch counter and fired up a smokehouse in back.
Scheffel, 65, helped out at the store as a kid, but he didn’t consider it work. The doughnut machine was an extra attraction.
“I loved my grandpa,” Scheffel said. “He was fun, had a great sense of humor, and he was a soft touch. He ran a tab for people in the neighborhood. My grandmother was very mad at him when he did that.”
Scheffel started as a bagger and stock boy, and later delivered meat to businesses and homes in Lansing. The clientele included workers from nearby Fisher Body and the huge Howard Sober trucking firm, across the street from the store. Behind the store, Goodrich ran a trailer camp where Sober’s weary drivers sacked out.
The clientele wasn’t all working class. Goodrich’s also had accounts with the nearby Ransom E. Olds mansion, where Steve Scheffel made many deliveries in the early 1960s, and the governor’s residence. Scheffel may be the only person who has provided food to both Olds and Jerry Seinfeld. (Goodrich’s put together a deli tray for Seinfeld when the comedian came to the Wharton Center last March.)
The old store was bulldozed in 1966 to make way for I-496, along with Scheffel’s grandparents’ home, the Olds mansion and a lot of other Lansing history.
The grocers could have folded their tent, but Robert Scheffel, Uncle Bruce and Grandpa Al, now retired, made a bold move. With an eye on the booming university to the east, they bought out a floundering East Lansing grocery store at the corner of Trowbridge and Harrison roads, only a few years old, in January 1966.
A month after they stocked the store, the blizzard of January 1967 hit, forcing everyone on that side of town to come to Goodrich’s — “by horseback, sled, however,” Scheffel said. Neighbors helped out when employees couldn’t make it to work.
“It introduced an awful lot of people to the new ownership,” Scheffel said.
In the next decade, customers poured in from nearby married student housing, which was bursting with young families in the mid-1960s. Baby food, diapers and housewares flew off the shelves.
One of those “things that led to another” that kept Scheffel at the store was a lifelong passion for wine. When East Lansing went from dry to wet, Scheffel began to stock wine and beer. There are now over 5,000 different wine, beer and liquor items jammed into the wet side of the store — no carts in the aisles, please.
“California wine was in its infancy, but I fell in love with the European wines, the geography and history,” he said. Scheffel still travels a lot — he and Marilyn have been to 41 countries in the past several years — but doesn’t go to wineries anymore. “I don’t do busman’s holidays.”
Scheffel isn’t the only Goodrich’s lifer. Head cashier Gail Summerfield, produce manager John McKuen and Bruce Granbau, master of non-perishable items, have all been with the store since the ‘70s. Savage came to MSU as a business student in 1971, living in a dormitory across the street. He started out part time, and, he, too, reported that “one thing led to another.”
The store’s family feeling, along with the ever-diversifying specialty items and staggering variety of booze, helped it survive a fire in the 1980s and two rounds of prolonged construction that forced customers to make elaborate detours.
The personal touch at Goodrich’s is still so extreme it borders on impertinence. Here, they not only greet you by name, they divine your deepest desires. Meat specialist Dr. Beef, the laconic Dave Lindemann, found a home at Goodrich’s when his butcher shop in Lansing closed in the 1970s. (“He’s not mean, he’s shy,” customer Marcia Spencer told me.)
One day, I walked up to the meat counter, where another customer was already standing. Without saying a word, Lindemann nestled two salmon steaks into a package, affixed a label and put it on the counter. It was the same thing I was going to ask for, but I thought it was a coincidence.
“I’ll have the same thing,” I said.
Lindemann silently pushed the package closer toward me. It wasn’t for the other guy, but for me. I don’t always buy salmon, or even fish. How does he do that?
“Oh, you’re good,” I said, but his back was already turned as he slipped back into the cutting room. He never said a word.