Frank Stanitzek’s grandfather opened Frank’s Market in 1933, and the specialty store survived by carving out a niche market. Photo by Jim Gebben
For some, working in the family business isn’t necessarily a lifelong career choice.
While some choose to stay with the family firm forever and others flee at the first opportunity, Frank Stanitzek chose to leave and then come back — three times.
After several stints away from the company that his grandfather, also named Frank, started in 1933, he’s returned to the specialty meat shop as general manager.
Frank’s Market, 750 W. Fulton St., now is owned by Stanitzek’s younger brother, Fritz, who has been with the company since high school. Frank, two years older than Fritz at 53, went to work for D&W Food Centers as a meat merchandiser the fall after his high school graduation.
Stanitzek spent 10 years with D&W, learning the ins and outs of advertising and displaying meats in a modern supermarket. At one point in his D&W career, he won a merchandising contest from among more than 275 entries.
“Merchandising is my specialty,” he said. “That’s been incredibly important to stay around as the grocery industry has progressed.”
Frank’s Market hasn’t changed all that much in its 80 years. Aside from a remodel in 1996, the store has stayed true to its original identity. That identity was heavily influenced by Frank Sr., who came to the United States after running from his position in the German army in World War I. The Stanitzek name can be found in the books on Ellis Island, but the elder Stanitzek didn’t meet his wife until he came to Grand Rapids.
“It’s amazing (how) little choices in life can affect family trees,” Stanitzek said. “If my grandfather didn’t flee from the Kaiser and didn’t come to Grand Rapids, I wouldn’t be here.”
With his Eastern European heritage came sausage recipes from the “old country” — the border between what is now Poland and the Czech Republic. That heritage has survived through two generations: Fritz is known within the community as the “Kielbasa King.”
After receiving a football scholarship to Notre Dame and graduating with a business degree, Stanitzek’s father, Frank Jr., took over the family business in 1957 when his father became ill. Fritz took over in 1993.
Frank Jr. and his wife, Margaret, had eight children, all of whom worked at the meat market at one point or another. Frank was the oldest of the eight, and the first one to leave the business when he joined D&W, but 10 years later he was back. In 1994, he joined his younger brother, John, to help start a Frank’s Market in Grand Haven after buying Sheffield’s Choice Meats.
Twenty years ago, Stanitzek also opened up a meat distributing business, which had to be a separate business entity from Frank’s Market because of federal regulations.
“Working for yourself can be rewarding,” he said. “You get to set your own schedule, but you don’t want to look at your hours — although they’re rewarding, you won’t like your wage.”
The business distributed to area restaurants and catering companies, and before too long, Frank’s Meat & Sausages was bought by a larger company, and Stanitzek left the family business yet again. His workload began to bother him, however, as the owners of the larger company were, as he says, “golf-aholics,” and he sold his share of the company.
At that time, his father was beginning to think of retirement, and Stanitzek returned to the original Frank’s Market in Grand Rapids. But with family dynamics still in play, Stanitzek returned to his brother’s shop on the lakeshore to help out. Faced with the decision of whether to renew the lease or expand, they decided to move the Grand Haven shop to a larger location and expand its offerings to dairy, beer, wine and general groceries. The new larger location sparked an improvement for the key Grand Haven neighborhood, Stanitzek said.
Now he’s back at the considerably smaller Grand Rapids market in an effort to “slow down” as he grows older.
“When you’re younger, it’s easy to work 65 to 70 hours a week and only get six hours of sleep a night,” he said. “Now, I need the rest.”
Still, he gets up some days at 5:30 a.m. to commute to work — he still lives in Grand Haven — and he started another distribution company, Frank’s III, this time supplying 12 area New Beginnings restaurants.
All his moving back and forth between meat businesses has left him with a varied experience that has allowed him some insight into the industry.
The Grand Rapids area once was ripe with small butcher shops, but the movement to supermarkets quickly ran many of them out of business, he said. Those that survived, including many on the west side, did so because they carved out a niche market — such as Fritz’s “top-notch sausages.”
“Essentially, you can run a small business and big business the same way,” Stanitzek said of supermarkets and specialty shops. “But this is a specialty shop: The beef and pork program we have here is unmatched at a chain store.”
He went on to explain that big stores can sell below cost on some items because they can make up the cost with other items. Stanitzek was quick to say he was not knocking the quality of meat products sold in stores such as Meijer and D&W, as they carry certified meats. But a store like Frank’s Market carries higher grade, premium meats because that’s what its customers expect.
That’s not to say Frank’s Market doesn’t have something for families on a budget. It offers bundle packs that come with different beef and pork cut combinations that fit a variety of budgets.
The customers at Frank’s Market expect premium meats because it’s practically all they know, Stanitzek said.
“We’re driven by regulars — 70 percent of our customers are regulars. We see them once a week or more,” he said. “Most of the other 30 percent are once a month.”
Frank’s Market has worked hard for many years to make sure those regulars are treated well and feel at home. Stanitzek said his father sometimes would put a can of beer into a customer’s bag, a practice that eventually turned into a Red Delicious apple — simply as a way of saying thanks for coming into the market.
Many customers make sure to visit the market for the Easter and Christmas holidays, Stanitzek said.
“They think we have some sort of special sausage, but it’s the same stuff we always have,” he said. “We make it all year round.”
Stanitzek said he’s not at all worried about supermarkets threatening the future of the business. His parents are in their late 70s, and their generation, which once made up a huge portion of the customer base, is disappearing.
“That next generation — my age and younger — are really starting to come around a lot more,” he said.
Stanitzek said family businesses can be a tricky thing and family dynamics can shift a lot, but they’re still a great thing.
“I should have committed more to the family business,” he said of all his years away. “But I did learn a lot doing all the things I did.”