MY TURN: Deli owner put unique stamp on Motor City

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For whatever reason, a friend recently sent me a newspaper clipping, one of those that had stood the test of time even if it was yellowed and frayed around the edges.

It was meant as a reminder “to build all your roads on today because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans and futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.”

It may serve as a fitting epitaph for Greg Mudge, the beloved owner of Mudgie’s Deli in Detroit, who died unexpectedly September 5 at the age of 46, more than 13 years after opening the popular Corktown restaurant.

Mudge, as I soon came to appreciate in the spring of 2008 after dining at the restaurant on Brooklyn Street, was the quintessential “hands-on” owner, doing whatever was needed to build his business into a Motor City mainstay. He was a combination cook, waiter, bus boy, bookkeeper, H.R. manager, and tireless promoter of all things Detroit.

In short, he was the seemingly ever-present face of what could have been a franchise had he chosen to go that restaurant way.

But I suspect he preferred to go a different route on the road to success, slowly and methodically building a brand that captivated and attracted diners from across Metro Detroit.

His passing that Sunday morning, reportedly of “hypertensive cardiovascular disease,” was one part shocking and two parts incredibly sad, the kind of news that prompted an outpouring of heartfelt tributes from inside and outside Detroit.

“I have no words for this loss,” Bobcat Bonnie’s owner Matt Buskard wrote in a Facebook post. “Greg was always one of the best, most helpful and just good people I’ve ever known. I still just cannot believe this is actually true.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, who developed a personal connection to Mudge at an informal get-acquainted session across the street from the restaurant.

“When my family moved to Corktown 7 years ago, Greg Mudge was one of the 1st to greet and welcome us at Murphy Playlot,” Gilchrist said via social media. “From then on, I witnessed how his kind, humble, unselfish spirit truly lifted our community.”

To such a degree, said Gilchrist, that Mudge “will be missed but not forgotten.” Not by a long shot.

“Every friend, neighbor, fellow entrepreneur/restauranteur, patron, and beneficiary of his generosity now has a responsibility to be better people and make Greg proud,” Gilchrist added emphatically.

Recently, as a friend and I dined outside at Mudgie’s on a sun-splashed afternoon, I was reminded of another dining experience there in December.

On that frosty day, which was sunny and snow-free, Mudge stopped by our table to thank us for eating there, spending more than a few minutes with us to tell how difficult staying afloat had been during the pandemic.

“To say it’s been touch-and-go would be an understatement,” he said on that winter day, which was one of three straight unseasonably warm afternoons that week. “If it hadn’t been for people like you—and the weather, I doubt if I would have been able to make payroll this week.”

Thankfully, he did, staying open a few more weeks before taking a winter hiatus. That break – long and as uncertain as it could be in the midst of a pandemic – may well have served as a precursor of how much Mudgie’s ever-resilient owner will be missed.

Big time.