Argiero's restaurant was once one of the Midwest's busiest co-ops
Argiero's, the cozy Italian restaurant on the corner of Detroit and Catherine streets, was from 1936 to 1939 the site of a social experiment: a co-op gas station and grocery store. They were run by the Ann Arbor Co-operative Society, a group that organized during the Depression to seek alternatives to capitalism to distribute the necessities of life.
The co-op was started by a small group meeting in the Hill Street living room of Harold Gray, the millionaire idealist who started the Utopian Saline Valley Farms. Their first project, in 1933, was to purchase coal in bulk, thus eliminating the middleman. At the time, coal was a necessity of life, since it was used to heat most homes. Neil Staebler, who with his father, Edward, ran the Staebler and Son Oil Company, was very sympathetic to their cause. (He later became chair of the Michigan Democratic Party and served a term in Congress.) Staebler helped arrange for the co-op to buy coal by the train carload. One of the founding members, William Kemnitz, an attorney who had lost his job at a Detroit bank during the infamous bank holiday, served as the co-op staff person, calling all the members and taking their coal orders by phone. At about the same time, the group also began buying food in bulk.
In 1936, the co-op expanded into a full-time enterprise. Neil Staebler rented the group his Detroit Street gas station, as well as the brick barn behind it on Fifth Avenue. Bill Kemnitz became general manager, with his office in the gas station. Kemnitz's three sons, Bill Jr., Milt, and Walt, all worked there as gas station attendants at various times. Walt, then in high school, remembers his salary was 29 cents an hour. Milt, now an artist well known for his pictures of local scenes, painted the sign, the first in a long career.
The co-op grocery store was set up next door in the old barn, which dated to 1887. An extensive remodeling included installing indoor plumbing and adding plate glass show windows to the Fifth Avenue side. The goal of the grocery store, according to manager Abe Rosenkrantz, was "honest consumer value." Rosenkrantz, who had worked in retail as manager of an office supply business before coming to EMU as a student, walked a tightrope, trying to offer the best products available, such as oranges without coloring, while keeping prices competitive with the chain stores, which could afford a low profit margin.
Charter co-op member Helen McCluskey chaired the board of directors' store committee, leading tasting sessions where prospective store items, such as canned peas, were opened and sampled, with the group voting on which brand they thought best.
Rosenkrantz says that to the casual consumer "the store looked like other supermarkets of the day except for labels they wouldn't recognize." He says in some ways the store was like a Meijer, in that it also offered nonfood products such as aspirin (Consumers Union had recently reported that Bayer was no better than off-brand aspirins) and some appliances. In 1937, the group also started a credit union.
Members felt they had a personal stake in the co-op. Says Bill Kemnitz Jr., "Everyone who bought owned the place. There were not many dissatisfied customers. If there were, we would work it out to everyone's satisfaction." Mary Hathaway, daughter of members A. K. and Angelyn Stevens, remembers, "It was our store. We felt very proprietary. Even as a small child you sense where your parents feel connected."
The Ann Arbor co-op soon became the second largest in the Midwest, with Chicago's the only bigger one. In 1939, pressed by a shortage of parking, needing more room, and wanting its own building, the organization moved to 637 South Main Street. It stayed there until 1955, when a Kroger opened across the street and put the co-op out of business.
The Detroit Street gas station reverted to a for-profit station during World War II. In the late 1940's and 1950's, it and the store buildings housed a used-car dealership. In 1965 Tony Argiero bought both buildings; he rented the gas station to a fish market and the store to an air-conditioning shop. In 1977, Argiero decided to use the buildings himself for an Italian restaurant he would run with his wife, Rosa. Tony had met Rosa in 1960, on a visit to his mother's village, Castelsilano, in the southern Italian province of Calabria. Rosa, obviously an authentic Italian cook, got her professional start cooking at Perry Nursery School.
Tony and Rosa enclosed the overhanging drive-in part of the gas station and built an addition on the back. They later put an addition on the west side. In 1985, they sold the restaurant to their four children. Amelia dropped out after two years, but today sons Sam, Carmin, and Michael still run it.
The Ann Arbor Co-operative Society still exists. Though it no longer has a gas station or a grocery store, its credit union is still thriving as part of the Huron River Area Credit Union, located on West Stadium. Member number 2 on the membership list is Helen McCluskey.