Fans of Oak Park’s legendary Ernie’s Market have no problem standing in line for an hour waiting for one of his famous sandwiches. That’s not just because they’re hungry for his oversized, meat- and cheese-laden creations, or because the shop has retained its original vintage ’50s feel.
It’s because they need a hit of the ebullient guy whose name is on the store: Ernie Hassan. His larger-than-life personality and favorite exhortation, “Who loves you, baby?” make everybody feel good.
Hassan is the kind of guy the whole world needs right now, and his legion of customers miss his contagious effervescence. He closed March 25 to wait out the pandemic. Because of his age (77) and his health — he has survived a stroke — his doctors told him not to do interim takeout-only business until the virus receded.
Founded in 1955 by Hassan’s father, Ernie Sr., Ernie’s Market has been called “the happiest sandwich shop in Michigan” by MLive, and Metro Times’ “Best Sub Shop” (even though, as Ernie laughs, he doesn’t make subs). Click on Detroit/WDIV-TV cited Ernie’s for “Best Sandwich” several years running, among other honors. Along with countless print stories over the years, Hassan has been featured on multiple local TV stations’ food segments, as well as on the Travel Channel’s Food Paradise series.
But one of Hassan’s favorite moments was as the grand marshal in Oak Park’s annual July 4 parade a few years back. “I had to go into the dunk tank,” he chuckles.
The Family Business
He has worked at the store nearly all of his life, including delivering groceries as a kid on his bicycle. Hassan worked for four years as a tool-and-die shop troubleshooter, but he returned to the market — he always has. His dad, who ran a family market on Peterboro in downtown Detroit before moving to Oak Park, was a strict boss. Hassan, who took over after his dad’s passing in 1991, says he is even more so.
“The store has to be the best; it has to be clean, with the best meat, the best cheese, the best lettuce, the best everything,” he says.
Last summer, Hassan put in a new dining patio — the first in Oak Park — plus a new kitchen with all-new water pipes.
“The best sandwich needs the best water,” he says.
Ernie’s sandwiches usually are packed with yellow and orange cheeses, one or two kinds of meat, lettuce and a blend of mayonnaise and yellow mustard mixed with Hassan’s signature Love spices that are available in jars in the market. Bread choices are Kaiser rolls, white, wheat and rye. Prices range from $6-10.
“It’s a nice sandwich for decent money,” he says.
Since his stroke, daughter Lori has joined the business and is running day-to-day operations. His son, Ernie III, is not involved in the market.
Hassan laughs that his wife of 50 years, Lois, wanted to divorce him several times during their marriage because he was at the market all the time and never wanted to take a vacation.
“I worked morning till night,” he says. “We never saw each other more than half an hour at a time. Now, with the pandemic, we’ve seen each other more than in our whole 50 years.”
The Hassans were hoping to celebrate the store’s 65th anniversary in April, but the coronavirus put the kibosh on that. Now that Michigan’s stay-at-home order is lifted, he is planning for a June 15 reopening.
“I talk to the city, go out once in a while to see how traffic is,” Hassan says.
Hassan promises that as soon as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives him the green light, he’ll be back behind the meat slicer, trading quips with customers and piling up the protein on Kaiser onion rolls.
Oak Park Mayor Marian McClellan can’t wait for that to happen. Perhaps Hassan’s No. 1 fan, she recalls how she was blown away on her first visit.
“The first time you go in, it’s shocking — the long line,” she says. “But he is theater. He loves people, and he makes everyone feel special and wanted. It’s like visiting Santa Claus. Lois is great, too. She’s like Mrs. Claus.”
While the sandwiches are generous, with reasonable prices, McClellan says, “Ernie’s offers much more than a sandwich.”
She has even issued a city proclamation naming Hassan as Oak Park’s Goodwill Ambassador.
“He offers unexpected joy— service and joy,” she says. “I treasure these people because it’s what we want for Oak Park: openhearted service that we want to be our trademark.”
The mayor recalls that one of Hassan’s customers, a young woman, went into Beaumont Hospital to have a baby.
“On the way home, she stopped at Ernie’s to show him her newborn baby.”
No doubt some things will have to change once Ernie’s reopens. The cash-only system will probably give way to credit cards. He probably can’t hand out his signature Hershey’s Kisses or hug people, either.
“I just want to be positive,” he says. “We’re going to make it, but we’re going to be safe.”
And he wants his customers to remember: “Who loves you? Ernie loves you, baby!”
Ernie’s Market, 8500 Capital St., Oak Park, 248-541-9703, erniessandwichshop.com