On Oct. 31, owner Don Payne did something he had been putting off for a year: He told employees the 44-year-old restaurant will close on Jan. 8, 2012.
"I knew it was coming. I hoped I could find a way to not tell the employees they didn't have a job," said Payne, who celebrated his 70th birthday and the company's anniversary with .
With his wife, Peggy, Don Payne has owned the family restaurant on Orchard Lake in Farmington Hills since 1976. Family Buggy first opened in Detroit in 1967; that restaurant closed in 1986. The Paynes also had locations in Rochester Hills, which opened in 1983 and closed in 2006, and Livonia, which opened in 1987 and closed in 2005.
Some customers who started with Family Buggy in Detroit still frequent the Farmington Hills location.
"We're still doing a good job," Don Payne said, adding that it "tears at us" to shut down while the company is getting rave reviews from customers. "It all boils down to the economy slowed down just enough that we can't be profitable in this big a rental space."
And at this point in his life, he added, "I can't afford to close down and completely open another restaurant in a smaller space."
Of the 59 employees working today, 27 (including the Paynes) have a total of 545 years with Family Buggy. One of the hardest parts of closing, Peggy Payne told her husband, will be not seeing their friends every day – friends who work together in a way that Don Payne says is unique to Family Buggy.
"It just really hurts that the employees are going to be hunting for work," he said, "but I know the reputation the company has will help them get into other situations. The quality of our people is pretty unmatched in the industry. Other restaurants will be very blessed to have these people working for them."
Payne is writing personalized letters of recommendation for each employee and said "I will do what I can to help them get into quality situations."
'Everybody ... is on the same level'
At the 44th anniversary party, Betty Bergers said the Paynes "are just such good people to work for. If you have a problem at home, they'll work around it."
"There no other establishment that has as many loyal employees as Mr. Payne has," Marge Barbarich, who has worked for the company for 34 years, said. "Some of these young people started when they were 15 or 16 years old, left for college and came back. We have children of employees that still work for us."
"We all work together, and we all do what needs to be done," Don Payne said. "Everybody from top to bottom is on the same level."
That goes for everything, including the gold, custom-made Family Buggy rings awarded to employees who reach their 25-year anniversary. At a recent company dinner, both a manager and a dishwasher received one.
"Everyone is equal, and because of that, it's a whole different working relationship," Payne said. "The net result is that everybody's pulling together."
The Family Buggy family also pulls together in tough times. When waitress Joan Griffith was undergoing treatment for cancer, her co-workers donated their tips – even customers helped out by leaving larger tips – and raised $5,000 to help her out. Employees also took on more responsibility when Don Payne was away for the better part of a year, while being treated for colon cancer.
That was 12 years ago, and since that time, Payne has been sending other cancer patients encouraging letters and Halo Beanie Babies, a tiny stuffed animal that was all the rage in the 1990s.
"We were one of the largest Beanie sellers in Michigan," Payne said. "One year, we sold $800,000 worth ... Kids would talk their parents into coming in to eat so they could get a Beanie."
Family Buggy is also known for its iconic over-sized stuffed bears, which often end up sitting next to children and even adults during meals. Once they're retired, the bears are donated to cancer patients or classrooms. On Farmington-Farmington Hills Patch's Facebook page, Nancy Wysocki Hill wrote that the bears have been part of her family's special occasions.
"For about four years in a row, my son wanted to go there for his birthday so he could sit with the bear and buy a Beanie Baby from the gift shop," she wrote, adding she's sorry to see the restaurant close.
Carla Snyder Beaver called the closing the "end of an era ... Four generations of our family love the Buggy and all that it has to offer. Good-bye, old friend."