Yanitsky's

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, June 1994,
June 1994

Author: Grace Shackman

A Real Family Restaurant

Just before World War II, Antoniette Yanitsky and her eight children ran a small restaurant at 515 East William. With the whole family plus in-laws and friends pitching in, they kept Yanitsky's open from seven in the morning until eleven at night, seven days a week.

The children--Andy, Marie (O'Brien), Violet (Gayeff), Pauline (Flis), Audrey (Milliken), Nicky, and twins, called "the Babes," Helen (Marten) and Rose (Barnes)--ranged in age from high school students to young adults. They cooked, did dishes (no dishwasher in those days), waited on customers, and did whatever else needed doing. "We were glad to be there," recalls Marie. "We wanted to help. We used to laugh and kid. Everyone was so young."

Along with traditional all-American stews and roasts, Yanitsky's served Ukrainian pierogis and cabbage rolls. Antoniette (her nickname was "Tone") was born to Ukrainian immigrant parents in 1893 in the Pennsylvania mining community of Bentleyville. At sixteen she married Joseph Yanitsky, a Ukrainian immigrant who worked in the mines and was boarding with her family. Long hours and miserable conditions led the miners to protest, and Antoniette, more proficient in English than many of the foreign-born workers, became one of the leaders. The company retaliated by firing her husband.

The Yanitskys were glad to leave Pennsylvania, anyway, since they did not want their sons to grow up to be miners. They moved to Cleveland, where Joseph got a job in a silk factory. Their eldest son, Andy, learned to cook in a program designed to keep children off the streets. But the family moved again after their youngest son, Paul, died of spinal meningitis. They came to Ann Arbor in 1926 to live near Antoniette's sister, Catherine Bandrofchek.

The Yanitskys chose Ann Arbor partly because they wanted to live in a small town. According to Pauline, that's just what Ann Arbor was in the 1920's: "We walked everywhere. Doors were never locked." Says Marie, "Everybody almost knew each other." Joseph soon got a job working as a maintenance man at University Hospital. He also worked on weekends helping to finish Michigan Stadium. The family had planned to rent a house, but when none was available, they talked to Judge William Murray, the developer of Murray and Mulholland streets, who offered them a new house at 314 Mulholland for $6,500 on reasonable terms. In the mid-1930's they moved to a bigger house, on Detroit Street next to the Treasure Mart.

Never one to sit still, Antoniette did what she could to help the family finances. She earned enough to pay the taxes on the house by taking all the children to pick berries at the Taylor strawberry patch on the current site of Northside School. (Today there is a Taylor Street on the south side of the school.) Later she sold Christmas trees from the house, enlisting whoever was at home to be the salesperson.

The whole family pitched in to run Yanitsky's. Andy Yanitsky (in cook's whites) stands at the rear next to his sister Marie. Marie's future husband, Jack O'Brien, helps "the Babes"--twins Helen and Rose--behind the counter.

Antoniette began her restaurant career when she got a job at a coney island at Packard and State. When the owner's health began to fail, he asked her to take over. She decided to supplement the chili and hot dogs with foods she served at home, such as pot roasts and soups.

She took a motherly interest in her student clientele. There was a slot machine in the restaurant, but when students spent their money on that instead of on food, she threatened to write to their mothers. Her kids told her, "Mom, they're your customers. Leave them alone."

When she began running the restaurant herself, Antoniette recruited her kids to help--even Nicky, who was then still in grade school. One night, when he was alone at the restaurant, he fell asleep on the counter. The students hanging around called Antoniette at home to complain that he wasn't serving them. When they woke him and called him to the phone, Nicky said in his defense, "You know, those guys are not eating--they're just playing the [slot] machine."

The place was really too small for the operation Antoniette had in mind, so when a bigger restaurant, the Campus Sandwich Shop on East William, became available, she rented it. It still was small by today's standards: just a counter and one row of tables in the front and the kitchen in the back, with a pass-through window.

With a bigger place, Antoniette needed more help from her family--but they were up to it. She ran her restaurant with whatever kids she needed, while Joseph, still working at the hospital, spent his off-hours at home, taking care of the house and the children who weren't working. (The kids weren't allowed to hang around the restaurant when they weren't needed, since it was impossible to do homework with so many people coming and going.) Pauline and Marie both loved working at the restaurant, even when they had other jobs. There was no set pay, but their mother would usually give them something for coming.

By the time Yanitsky's opened, Pauline and Violet were married to university students. Their husbands also helped out at the restaurant, although they had other jobs. John Flis, Pauline's husband, worked as a janitor at St. Mary's Chapel around the corner. He made points with his mother-in-law by coming in at noon and offering to work for his meal. The other son-in-law, Todd Gayeff, a Macedonian with a Turkish passport, had a regular job at a coney island on Main Street. He also worked as a waiter at Yanitsky's, but it wasn't always a net gain for his mother-in-law, because he would feed his fellow countrymen for nothing. Pauline laughs and says they all were guilty of that on occasion when their friends came in, although the friends also provided free labor. Jack O'Brien, Marie's boyfriend (later her husband), would get behind the counter and help when he came in, and Audrey's girlfriends, coming to meet her to go to the movies, would help her finish up the dishes so she could leave sooner.

The restaurant served meals all day long. At breakfast, cereal with milk was 10 cents, cereal with cream was 15 cents. For lunch they offered a variety of sandwiches and homemade soups, all for 10 cents. At dinnertime 30 or 35 cents bought a meal of stew, roast beef, leg of lamb, or spaghetti. On days when Antoniette made her Ukrainian specialties, they also had considerable take-out business.

Marie remembers that because the help was so young, customers thought they didn't know how to do anything. Instead of just ordering a sundae, they would give directions--telling the kids to put chocolate syrup on the ice cream and then add nuts. Cherry sundaes were a favorite of Francis O'Brien (the future probate judge), who was a regular at the restaurant as a law student. When they saw him coming, the kids would start scooping up the ice cream.

Several of the Yanitsky kids had specialties. Pauline was good at making pie crusts. Andy, who helped out when he wasn't working at the Law Quad or the Michigan League, would make the fillings, and he also enjoyed baking bread and Parker House rolls. Audrey was very good at making cakes, which she decorated according to the season with shamrocks, Christmas trees, or valentines.

As hard as the kids worked, their mother worked harder. She was indefatigable. Marie remembers that the children would urge her to go home, telling her they would take over. But she would refuse, insisting that they go home instead. And, says Marie, "If she wasn't cooking at the restaurant, she would be cooking at home." Her husband worried that she was doing too much, but she answered that she was doing just what she wanted to do.

Besides students, Yanitsky's also served employees of Jacobson's and other nearby businesses. The late Ben French, owner of Campus Bike and Toy across the street, was a regular. Students from the Alexandra School of Cosmetology, upstairs at State and William, were briefly a problem: they would come in at lunchtime but order only coffee. Antoniette talked to the school's owner, Edith Alexander, who agreed to change the lunch hour so her students would not interfere with the regular trade.

On Sundays parishioners from St. Mary's would come in after mass, especially those who had fasted in order to take communion. The Yanitskys, themselves Catholic, took turns going to different masses so they could keep the restaurant open.

Some loyal customers ate at Yanitsky's every day. When out-of-town friends and family came, they would bring them to the restaurant to introduce them. When they graduated, they would write to the Yanitskys. "It was a meeting place," says Marie. "People were so glad to come. They would come in and talk." But when they saw people coming in and waiting for seats, they would leave and continue their conversations out in front.

Antoniette couldn't keep the place going during the war years. Sons Andy and Nicky went into the service, and the girls were marrying and leaving town.

Gold Bond Cleaners moved into the space and stayed until 1967, when the building was torn down to make way for Tower Plaza. Antoniette outlived the destruction of her former restaurant. She died in 1983, at eighty-nine, on January 6, the Ukrainian Christmas.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: On Sundays parishioners from St. Mary's chapel across the street would come in after mass. The Yanitskys, themselves Catholic, took turns going to different masses so they could keep the restaurant open.