Sister Pie cookbook cover (photo courtesy of EE Berger)
I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I don’t like pie’. I know some crazy people who aren’t huge fans of cake. But pie is one of those rare, universally loved foods.
Most people have a favorite pie and if you visit Sister Pie in Detroit, you’ll discover new flavors of pie, cookies and pastries you never knew existed.
You can also discover how creative, finely tuned, and in-sync local communities can become when they’re assembled and provided an outlet, such as the daily magic of Sister Pie.
This story is beyond pies. It delves into the heart of Detroitness, the importance of farms, the power of ideas and the oft unacknowledged tapestry of communities which make the USA a great chunk of the Global Village.
How did Sister Pie start?
Well, Lisa Ludwinski had an idea. She grew that idea with raw drive, talent, a flair for self-marketing and perseverance. The idea eventually sprouted into a business. The business attracted tens of thousands of customers whom became devoted fans and now the business is thriving and has become an undeniable force in the community. This led to Lisa writing one of the coolest cookbooks of all time and achieving international worldwide recognition in the process.
The business and the cookbook are called Sister Pie. The creator & author is Lisa Ludwinski and this is her story.
A TEMPLE OF PIE AND BAKED GOODS
Sister Pie (photo courtesy of Michelle & Chris Gerard)
Sister Pie is located on Kercheval Ave @ Parker St in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood, about three miles east of Downtown Detroit.
There is gloriously free street parking and the 950-square foot bakery is housed inside a circa 1925 corner wedge of building shaped like an inverted isosceles trapezoid. It gives Sister Pie a sort of ‘temple of pie and baked goods’ feeling.
Inside are beautifully presented pies with lattice weaves and decorative steam vents and an olfactory bouquet of brain-meltingly good smells.
They offer a range of edible works of art, including pies, cookies, pastries, breakfast and lunch. All those goodies can be enjoyed on-site at the single large family-style farmhouse table in the front of the shop, which is where Lisa and I are sitting right now.
The ambiance is cozy, quirky and inspiring. They also have double-stacked convection ovens here. These bad girls can fit 25 pies at a time, so you can bake up to 50 pies simultaneously!
I’m here visiting with Lisa because Sister Pie is all-around great and as a result, she has become one of Detroit’s de facto ambassadors. Plus, their cookie game is on point too, these are some good cookies!
Her cookbook, ‘Sister Pie: The Recipes and Stories of a Big-Hearted Bakery in Detroit’, clocks in at 256 pages and features over 75 recipes.
It was published in October 2018 by Lorena Jones Books, an imprint of Ten Speed Press, which is a division of Penguin Random House.
The book is an incredibly fun and interactive read, featuring recipes, ingredients, tips, easy to follow instructions, and Lisa’s own unique brand of quirky humor.
What is readily apparent from reading the book is that the Sister Pie powerhouse are fearless experimenters. They are unafraid to experiment with combinations of from-scratch ingredients and modify or replace the recipes as needed.
Lisa herself is a fun blend of silly and business, hilarious and serious, extrovert and introvert, intermingled together like her nontraditional pie ingredients.
“I have a pit bull named Ruby Thursday. She got her name because I liked the name Ruby and I met her on a Thursday. Ruby is my girl!”
“One of my biggest inspirations over the years have been my parents. They’ve given me probably too much support (laughs) I’m incredibly fortunate. Knowing they had my back allowed me to focus 100% of my time on business development and turn Sister Pie into a successful business.”
“They were so excited when I moved back home from Brooklyn. They gave me a place to stay, helped fund my existence, provided groceries, roof over my head. And growing up, they took their parental duty to the max and made it their mission give my sister Sarah and I good opportunities.”
“My Father Kurt runs the All America Plywood Company at John R & 7 Mile in Detroit. My grandfather started the business in 1967 and my dad took over in the late 1970’s. Growing up, it was a cool experience for me to visit him at the office, see him as a business owner and boss. He’s able to transform stress into creativity, which is very inspirational for me. I always know I can go to him for advice.”
“My mom is amazing. She carted me from dance lessons to play rehearsals and everywhere in between as a kid. We grew up on her cooking, and my Aunt Mimi’s pumpkin pie.”
BIOGRAPHY: LISA LOUISE LUDWINSKI
Lisa & Sarah (photo courtesy of Lisa Ludwinski)
Born 1984, Lisa Louise Ludwinski, grew up in Milford, Michigan with her sister Sarah. She attended Mercy High School and graduated with a BA in Theatre Arts from Kalamazoo College.
Upon graduation, she moved to Brooklyn, NYC and lived there from 2006-2012. When not filming her hilarious Funny Side Up cooking show and landing acting gigs, she worked as a pastry cook at Momofuku Milk Bar and very briefly at Four and Twenty Blackbirds.
Lisa decided to move back home and grow her new idea for a business. She started Sister Pie in November 2012 at her parent’s house. The orders rolled in fast and in 2013 she enrolled in D:hive Build (now Build Institute) business class, joined FoodLab Detroit and by 2014 transitioned to the Hannan House commercial kitchen space in Midtown Detroit.
Lisa added her first employee, Toledo native Anji Barto and things were cooking as they moved to Detroit’s West Village, snapped up several wholesale accounts and won $50,000 from the Hatch Detroit small business contest.
To raise money for a brick-and-mortar shop, Lisa launched an Indiegogo campaign in February 2015. The goal was to raise $25,000. Lisa did a 24 hours dance marathon where she personally danced for 24 hours straight inside Paramita Sound record store. She started 9pm Friday and stopped 9pm Saturday night! The fundraiser was a huge success and they exceeded their goal by $1,000.
Finally, after a few years of grinding hard every single day, Lisa officially opened Sister Pie on April 24th, 2015.
MORE ABOUT LISA
Lisa & Ruby Thursday (photo courtesy of Lisa Ludwinski)
“I’m of Polish and German descent, with some English and Russian thrown in there.”
“I was part of a mime troop in high school (laughs)…it was a weird thing, but fun. I did it for two years and learned skits, choreography, and the challenge of entertaining while being constrained. Without the ability to talk, you learn to be expressive in other ways.”
“Going to Mercy High School was a big experience in my life. I was introduced to a culturally and racially diverse student body, which is something I hadn’t really experienced in Milford. There was an emphasis on exploring and opening up your mind to other people and everyone’s different experiences, which created a strong foundation for my ongoing interest in social justice and human rights.”
“I like dogs, I like to doodle-draw, and going to see interesting films. The Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA is one of my favorite places in the city. My favorite movie is Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, ‘Rear Window’. I also like being outside and exploring different outdoor challenges and trying new things.
“As the business has grown, I’ve become more introverted. For the past couple decades, I’ve spent a lot of time as a performance-crazed extrovert. I have a wacky sense of humor. In general though, I try to be an empathetic person, try to give with kindness, and definitely have a tendency to over-analyze.”
“One of my favorite authors is Zadie Smith. Her book ‘On Beauty’ is my favorite of hers. Also really enjoy essays by Rebecca Solnit. I listen to a wide variety of music and have always been very into classic soul. My go-to music in general is 80’s New Wave (New Order, Talking Heads, etc).”
SISTER PIE: DRAMATIC CRIMPS & LATTICE WEAVES
Sister Pie’s Apple Sage Gouda Pie (photo courtesy of EE Berger)
The reason Sister Pie sells out early every day is because each person is buying an average of 5 to 10 items. Yes, it’s that good. I ordered $60.00 worth of pie and pastries while here and the only regret I have is that I didn’t bring another $40.00 with me to buy more.
“Sister Pie is run by 15 women, including myself. Everyone here has a lot of freedom, ownership, responsibilities and the business is now at a place where it can run without me needing to be here constantly.”
“The kitchen here is running 5am-6pm daily. We close for the holidays and take a two week break at the beginning of the year. We bake pies once daily, around 11 am or Noon. They sit overnight and are served the next day because pies need to rest for at least 4 hours.”
“My first employee, Anji Barto has been with us since May 2014. At the time she was doing some graphic design work for Germack. In April 2015, she became a full-timer and she’s been very involved in the growth of Sister Pie. We’ve been through a lot together.”
“Sister Pie is known for our nontraditional flavor combinations. We make these seasonally and there’s definitely something enticing about the unusual flavors. Again, I like a challenge and it’s challenging to pick a single base ingredient and see how you can layer it with other ingredients to make something different and unique.”
“We make our pie dough, the All-Butter Pie Dough, by hand every day communally. We use Plugra butter (high fat French butter) and unbleached all-purpose flour.”
“80% of Sister Pie pies begin with a blind-baked crust (ie: baked without filling). Pie crust is not hard to make, there’s just a lot of steps. You have to be thoughtful and work fast, especially so the butter doesn’t become completely homogeneous with the other ingredients. You want it to burst open when it hits the hot oven. It’s also possible to over-work the pie dough. It’s a hard balance because it takes a lot of muscle to sculpt the dough, roll it to a properly-sized circle and crimp it. I call our crimps ‘dramatic.’”
“I love our Sister Pie-It Forward Program. We have these slips of paper and for $4.24 you can purchase one and put it on our refrigerator. Anyone who comes in can grab it and use it for a free slice of pie.”
Sister Pie (photo courtesy of EE Berger)
“Every now and then we like to dance in the kitchen. It’s a fun way to release energy!”
“One Monday night per month we have Sister Pie Townhall Meetings. These are private, employee-only get-together’s where we sit at the store table and talk, eat and drink. It’s an open forum, a chance to empty the suggestions box and give everyone a chance to speak honestly about whatever’s on their mind.”
“We also offer classes here. They’re put up for sale quarterly. We host classes all year long, conducting maybe 3-4 per month. There are about 8 students per class and we do them here at the bakery. Lindsey teaches the pie dough classes and I teach the hand pie classes.”
“Wedding orders are hugely popular at Sister Pie. Especially during the warmer weather, we’re doing several wedding orders every weekend. If you or someone you know are interested in this, shoot us an email at email@example.com”
“As a business, Sister Pie has a Triple Bottom Line. This is a focus on being mindful of people, planet, and profit in every decision we make.”
WHAT TO TRY AT SISTER PIE?
Ruby loves Sister Pie! (photo courtesy of Lisa Ludwinski)
Sister Pie offers an array of deliciousness. Most of their pies have a 9-inch diameter, except for the mini pies, hand pies and they make special 6-inch pies for the holidays.
Here are some recommendations:
- Salted Maple Pie (“Considered to be our signature flavor, it has classic chess filling with Grade B maple syrup from Imlay City, Michigan”)
- Chocolate Coconut Pie
- Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Apple Sage Gouda Pie
- Sweet Potato, Black Bean & Feta Hand Pie (“If there were a hand pie fan club, this is the hand pie they’d serve at their meetings.”)
- Egg-on-Top Galettes
- Honey Lemon Meringue Pie (“Cloud-like meringue, we use a kitchen torch to toast the meringue.”)
- Rhubarb Rosemary Streusel Pie
- Sister Salads
- From Another Galaxy Brownies
- Sour Cherry Bourbon Pie
- Fennel Snickerdoodle Cookies
- Savory Hand Pies
- Peanut Butter Paprika Cookies
- Toasted Marshmallow Pumpkin Pie
- Sweet Beet Pie
- Spranola (granola, honey, yogurt)
- Blueberry Lemon Thyme Pie
- Brandy Pecan Pie
- They even do Paczki’s for Fat Tuesday! Maple coffee cream paczki, Grapefruit Hibiscus paczki, and the Pieraczki (pierogi-paczki hybrid)
THE IMPORTANCE OF FARMS
Michigan farmland (photo courtesy of Pure Michigan)
The State of Michigan has 10 million acres of farmland and over 50,000 farms.
Farms (and long-haul truckers) are the backbone of America, yet they are continually underrated and under-credited. Businesses like Sister Pie help farms and farmers achieve more recognition of their importance.
“Sister Pie works with dozens of farms and farmers! We try working with farms in Michigan, especially within the city of Detroit.”
“Our offerings are based on seasonality. April to November are the main months for Michigan farmers.”
“We get fresh whipped cream delivered weekly from Guernsey Dairy. We use heavy cream in many of our recipes. It provides a richness and flavor. The fat affects the texture of filling. We whip it up daily for pie, it’s especially good with more tart pies, helps balance the tartness.”
“We get sweet potatoes from Farmer Norm, buckwheat flour from Hampshire Farms, Northern Spy apples from Erwin Orchards and Farmer Joe Jessup in South Haven, etc, the list goes on and on.”
“As a team, Sister Pie even does an apple-picking trip once per year.”
“In the beginning, we started going to Eastern Market in Detroit to see what was available. That in-person interaction deepened many of our relationships with farmers. Now, they will typically deliver directly to us or we will still meet them at Eastern Market and pick it up there.”
LISA ON WRITING HER COOKBOOK
Lisa @ Sister Pie (photo courtesy of EE Berger)
One thing I appreciate is that Lisa made her cookbook fun. Most cookbooks are not fun. They’re usually instructional textbooks devoid of personality.
Lisa’s cookbook is the opposite, laced with idiosyncratic texture and overflowing with humorous asides, which makes it a unique experience, much like visiting Sister Pie. My two favorite lines are: “When you’re not in a pie mood (as if!)” and also “Over the years, the cookie has evolved much like a story in a game of telephone”.
“How the cookbook happened is basically I wrote a book proposal, got some recipe taste-testers together and it took some time, but we eventually compiled over 75 recipes.”
“It was listed by the New York Times as the Best Cookbook of 2018. Since it was published a few months ago in October, we’ve sold around 30,000 cookbooks. Here at the Sister Pie store in Detroit, we’ve sold over 1,000 copies.”
“It’s been a huge hit with home bakers. The Pie Dough recipe, for example, is very accessible. It’s a good opportunity for home bakers to use it and exercise patience. When a recipe tells you to wait, just wait, it will pay off. Please take the proper time to follow the baking rules for best results. I know it’s tough! The part of patiently waiting is an area I still struggle the most with. But it’s worth it.”
“My advice to fellow writers is to keep writing every single day. The whole process of getting the book published took me a full two years.”
“I even took a month off from the bakery to be a full-time writer. That may not seem like a lot, but believe me, taking an entire month off from your business is a huge deal. It’s a big gamble and one I was willing to take because I trusted my employees. During that time, I would write 6-8 hours per day. I worked on it at home, in various Detroit coffee shops and also Up North in the Torch Lake area.”
“EE Berger took the photos and she did an incredible job bringing a fresh, unique perspective to our bakery and baked goods.”
- When visiting Sister Pie, get there when they open.
- Try everything.
- Participate in the Sister Pie-It Forward Program.
- Buy the cookbook. Read it and use it.
- Be sure to check out Sister Pie’s Instagram. You’ll be Insta-hungry.
GET A JOB AT SISTER PIE
“We typically hire about every six months or so. Overall, we have good employee retention. We hire via a sign posted on the door. More than half of our employees live within walking distance and we do tend to hire only Detroit residents.”
Lisa is also a talented artist!
She drew the designs of Crimp Drama and What’s Shaking Sister Pie and also the cookie box labels.
FINAL THOUGHTS (FOR NOW) & UPCOMING DEVELOPMENTS
Lisa Ludwinski (photo courtesy of Sister Pie and Frame Hazel Park)
I give Lisa and her team a lot of credit for everything they’ve been able to do. It’s been a remarkable journey thusfar with many adventures yet to come. It will be interesting to continue following their development as visions of Sister Pie pies and cookies dance in our heads.
And remember that you can pre-order pies 48 hours in advance. They must be placed by 2pm two days in advance of pick-up. This is great for people who live far from the bakery.
One recent develop is that Esto’s Garage (1811 Parker Street, Detroit) will be opening next to Sister Pie. This Mexican-American casual eatery is run by Esteban Castro. I’ve known Esteban since he had a pop-up residency at Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy. His guacamole is off the chain!
Maybe we will get to see a Sister Pie & Esto’s Garage collab at some point? A taco and pie night, perhaps? Maybe with some margaritas, too?
“Currently, we are entering our next phase as a business, and looking at a space we would rent in addition to this place, somewhere in the same general area.”
“We’re looking to grow, get more kitchen space, add more classes, increase our Savory Food Program of sandwiches, soups, salads. Possibly even have some gluten-free pie crust.”
“One recommendation I have to everyone, especially you home bakers, is to start a Baking Club in your neighborhood. Get some friends together, pick a different cook book monthly, each of you make something out of it, then meet at each other’s houses to sample the creations. There are so many great cookbooks out there, but they’re rarely fully explored. This would be a good way to change that.”
CONTACT SISTER PIE
8066 Kercheval Ave
Detroit, MI 48214
Buy the Sister Pie Cookbook here
Lisa’s Youtube channel
Larry Mongo, owner of Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy 10-year Anniversary Party
Thursday, June 29, 2017
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is the Rick’s Café of Detroit. Humphrey Bogart ran Rick’s Café in Casablanca and his equally dapper counterpart Larry Mongo runs Café D’Mongo’s in Detroit.
The only difference is that Larry is a real-life character. And a real character, indeed! He’s one of a kind. Larry Mongo is a living piece of Detroit history and we are honored and thankful to have The Mongo family here helping to electrify the fabric of Detroit.
Detroit author & journalist Charlie LeDuff & Larry Mongo (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Widely regarded as one of the top bars in the United States, Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy officially opened in June 2007 and over the past ten years, has morphed into one of Downtown Detroit’s premier iconic bars. Almost every major visiting celebrity who comes into town drops by D’Mongo’s and the place absorbs a veritable ton of local and international visitors every weekend who overflow the bar.
A timeless quality distinguishes all great things and Café D’Mongo’s offers the world a certain Detroitness which cannot be duplicated, something timeless and classic. Perhaps it’s the interior, the live music, the phenomenal drinks, the outstanding service, the great people you meet there, the fact that Larry is a hands-on owner who leads from the frontlines and is always at the bar with a friendly smile.
History of Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Squeezed between a concrete parking structure and a circa 1937 shul, the building currently housing Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy used to be owned by the Greek Seros family. It was the Seros Chili Restaurant from 1918-1980’s.
Seros Chili Company (1439 Griswold, Detroit) c. 1920
“Seros Lunch originally opened here in 1918 then it was the Seros Chili Company in 1920. The owner was James Seros and his spot was nationally famous for their chili con carne. It was a Seros place until the 1980’s.”
Cafe D’Mongo’s used to be occupied by Seros Lunch
“In 1985, I purchased the restaurant and on June 4th, 1987, opened ‘Cafe Joseph’. In the early 90’s, Cafe Joseph was transformed by my son Jerome Mongo, into an after-hours club called the ‘Wax Fruit Rhythm Café’.”
“At the time, seldom known rappers like Eminem, Kid Rock, Esham and others used to perform here. In December 1993, Jerome opened the famous rap music spot ‘The Hip Hop Shop’ on 7 Mile Road with Maurice Malone and eventually closed Wax Fruit.”
Larry’s son Jerome Mongo
“The current incarnation of Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy was opened in June 2007 by me and my lovely wife Dianne. Some local nearby residents of Capitol Park, Sarah Kubik and Margaret Cassetto talked me into re-opening. They lived in some lofts nearby and finally convinced me. I’m glad they did.”
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy’s Internationally Famous Drinks
Larry Mongo & Quentin Tarantino hanging out at Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is famous for inventing two hugely popular drinks:
the 1439 (Captain Morgan’s rum and Faygo’s Rock N’ Rye) and The Detroit Brown (Crown Royal, splash of bitters and Vernors Ginger Ale).
“Quentin Tarantino has publicly stated that Café D’Mongo’s 1439 Griswold drink is his favorite drink of all-time. We introduced Quentin to Faygo Rock N’ Rye and sent him home with a case of it.”
“And just recently, Afar Magazine voted Café D’Mongo’s Detroit Brown the #1 cocktail in the world.”
“In 2014, Esquire TV featured us on ‘Best Bars in America’ and we’ve had a number of television shows in here.”
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy’s Internationally Famous Food
Andrew Zimmern and Larry Mongo at Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
“Our food is real popular too. We’ve got unique food but it’s a limited rotating menu. Andrew Zimmern featured us on his show ‘Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern’ on the Travel Channel. He had our peking duck on there. Sometimes I’ll even get in the kitchen and make Sloppy Larry’s and other stuff.”
“We used to have Esteban Castro making his famous guacamole at Esto’s Garage, a pop-up kitchen here. Now we have Eugene on the grill and Sanford “Rembrandt” Nelson making some delicious and unique grilled cheese creations. Eugene is the chef and Rembrandt creates the menu.”
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is a Hot Spot of Celebrity Sightings
Larry Mongo and Ryan Gosling hanging out at Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is a popular hangout spot for celebrities such as:
Quentin Tarantino, Ryan Gosling, Michael Bay, Sir Richard Branson, Sam Raimi, Charlie LeDuff, Anthony Kiedis, Bruce Campbell, Sixto Rodriguez, Marcus Samuelsson, Seth Ferranti (author of 20+ books, co-producer, co-writer of the White Boy Rick documentary) and hundreds of others.
Café D’Mongo’s Slate of Annual Parties
Dianne & Larry Mongo, husband and wife team of Cafe D’Mongo’s
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy hosts some famous annual events:
“Our best know annual parties are: Brazilian Carnival, the Jewish Purim, Detroit Tigers Opening Day Party the first Friday in April, Dia de los Muertos, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.”
Carl the Human Jukebox, leader of Carlo & Company, the Cafe D’Mongo’s house band
“We have live classic rock and soul music from Carl & Company, the Cafe D’Mongo’s house band. The group is fronted by Carl the Human Jukebox. When he plays stuff like James Brown-I Got The Feeling, the whole place starts jumping, everyone laughing and grooving, in-the-seat dancing, banging on glasses with spoons. It’s a fun time.”
Cafe D’Mongo’s artifacts
“The interior of Cafe D’Mongo’s is famous for being a one-of-a-kind Detroit history museum. The walls are adorned with rare vintage photographs and ephemera and odd trinkets. Michael Jackson’s jumpsuit hangs from the ceiling. The Detroit artifacts and memorabilia are rare, historical museum-worthy pieces. We are installing The Place Case curio cabinets full of rarities donated by Ryan Place soon above the bar, so stay tuned for more good stuff.”
The Mongo Family History
old Detroit map
“My family used to be slaves a long time ago. In 1906, the Mongo family moved from Kershaw, South Carolina to Detroit. The four Mongo men came here after one of them murdered someone. Sonny Boy was able to escape after Grandma dressed him as a little white girl in black mourning clothes. She told Sonny Boy to tell everyone he was a girl and that he was going up north to claim a dead body for burial.”
Kershaw, South Carolina
“Sonny Boy was my Grandpa’s brother. My Grandpa was Benjamin Mongo and they had to come to Detroit after they had to use capital punishment to fight an injustice that was used against them in the South. We also bought all the land we were slaves on.”
Dianne’s ancestor Mary Ann Shadd
“Now, my wife Dianne, she’s Canadian. She comes from the first settlement for black runaway slaves called North Buxton. Her great grandparents have a statue on the other side of the tunnel, George and Alice Shreve.”
“Dianne is also a descendant of Mary Ann Shadd. Her family were free blacks in 1850 and went to Canada. Dianne can trace her bloodline back to the 1700’s. During the Revolutionary times, one of the soldiers came from England. He was 14 years old and wounded. Dianne’s family took him in, took care of him, nursed him back to health. He ended up staying and marrying one of the girls.”
Dianne’s ancestor George Shreve
“Dianne’s aunt is Artis Lane, a famous sculptor from North Buxton. Artis did a bronze portrait of Rosa Parks, sculptures of many U.S. Presidents and more. I’m very proud of my wife and her heritage.”
How Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy Started
Larry’s happy birthday cake
“Café D’Mongo’s started as a chain of hair salons called D’Mongo’s Hairstyling. We used to cut Coleman Young’s hair, too. His barber chair is here at the bar on display.”
“When I got married in 1968, my wife Dianne wanted me to take her last name. We were both rebel kids, our families were close for generations. I kept my name but we decided to make our own family name. So we decided we needed a new shared name. We took the ‘D’ from Dianne and my last name ‘Mongo’ and created ‘D’Mongo’s. It was a private joke for years until I named the bar after it.”
“Dianne is British Methodist, she prays for me every day! Here’s another fun fact: Dianne made me get baptized before she married me. I took my friends, eight of us went and got baptized. After I told her we went and got baptized for her, she said ‘Lord, if they die now, at least there’s a chance!’”
“Then in 1975, Dianne become a master barber and in 1977 the very first D’Mongo’s Hair Salon opened (19985 Livernois, Detroit). I was a journeyman tool & die maker at the time but helped run the business of the hair salon.”
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy Was Originally Called Café Joseph
Dianne and Larry c. 1987
“Back in the day, there was this gay guy named Joseph and he belonged to a political group. He was the secretary, the gopher, and so forth until a new regime took over and they kicked him out just for being gay. But what they didn’t know is that he grew up with me in the old neighborhood. He was a neighborhood kid and we grew up together, I owed him a loyalty. He came to me, told me what happened and I sat down with him and said that I didn’t have a name for my new club that I was about to open. And I told him that I was gonna name the club Café Joseph in honor of him but I told him ‘you gotta go gangster.’”
“He was the host at the door, he’d look at me and get all fragile when the same people who kicked him out of their club showed up at my bar. They kicked him out, so I kicked them out of mine. I had the connections they needed, so they kept trying to come back. So about 1-2 years pass, the club is getting a bigger reputation and Joseph asks me if we can start letting them in. I say ‘tell all your friends they can’t get in unless they Mother with them’. So these guys actually brought their Mom’s down with them and we let them in. Then life changed for Joseph.”
“As straight guys, we never disrespected gay guys, we just let them do they thang. But when the straight square guys saw Joseph being hugged and shaking hands by street guys, his prestige rose to the top and he was grateful and a changed man.”
The Mongo’s & The Purple Gang Connection
The Purple Gang (Detroit) c. 1930
“The real money was in bootleg whiskey. My family used to run liquor with Abe Bernstein and The Purple Gang and the Bronfman family of Montreal. My grandpa and the underworld side of Dianne’s family worked with Abe in the bootleg business.”
“My family made a fortune. The code word in all the Mongo clubs was ‘Black and Tan’. Prohibition ironically created radical integration. It was hardcore right-wing Christians against all the people who drank alcohol. So, all the different types of people who loved liquor banded together and became friends.”
Larry Mongo & DeVon Cunningham
“85-year old DeVon Cunningham is a local Detroit artist and a very good friend of mine and he comes in here frequently. He was also personal friends with Abe Bernstein, boss of the Purple Gang. He has some of his art at the Smithsonian and he did many of the art pieces you see hanging in Café D’Mongo’s.”
Larry is Proud to Be Jewish
“I was a Jew before I knew I was a Jew. The Jewish culture had me. I really knew I was a Jew when I moved to Detroit! My value system, my beliefs, everything about me is Jewish. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Oak Park and when I moved to Detroit, some of the old gangsters used to laugh but they kept me around to learn and told the young guys to stick with me.”
“It’s not an accident that I’m next to the Isaac Agree Synagogue. We’re glad to be here and if I see anybody else try to spray paint the synagogue like when I caught those kids on the roof, there’s going to be hell to pay.”
The Dan Gilbertification of Downtown Detroit
Detroit is great!
“I’ve seen the Dan Gilbert effect. It is a positive business-generating effect and it’s also good for the spirit of the people of Detroit. Quietly among the black people, I call Dan Gilbert “Moses”. He’s leading us out of the darkness in terms of encouraging us to invest in Detroit. Chuck Forbes saved Detroit’s Theater district and Dan Gilbert is saving Downtown. People are in better moods, they’re moving into downtown, Midtown, Corktown, etc.”
“The millennial pollinators, the creative class, showed the world that people can live in Detroit. It started with gay women moving into illegal lofts. They paved the way, then gay men who partied, then straight men and women followed suit. Now it’s a good mix of everybody down here. Creative pollinators made it possible for people to feel safe again in Detroit.”
Larry’s Greatest Happiness: Boosting Other People’s Standings in Life
Christine Passerini (Cafe D’Mongo’s Manager) and Chris Krsteski (Cafe D’Mongo’s bartender)
“My greatest happiness is helping boost other people up to a greater potential in life. I’m a big believer in innate human potential.”
“Courtney Henriette who now owns the Katoi restaurant, created the Detroit Brown drink here at Cafe D’Mongo’s around 2008. She didn’t know how to make drinks at the time and she made it for a customer on a whim. The man said ‘this isn’t what I ordered but I like it. I’d like another.’ Suddenly, that very night, other people started ordering it and we had a runaway hit on our hands.”
“Esteban Castro has his own food truck now. Esteban came in as a customer and we let him run his pop-up kitchen Esto’s Garage in the back here. I let him do it for free until he got enough money together to get his own truck.”
Carl & Company, the Cafe D’Mongo’s house band
“Carl the Human Jukebox was down on his luck. He was homeless and singing Beatles songs outside of Grand Trunk Pub. I offered him a job. Then a dentist gave him a free set of false teeth. And now he lives in his own place, man!”
“Chris Krsteski the bartender got hired thru Chucky Patch, a local entertainer with a guitar. We love Chris, he always works hard.”
Sheila Edwards, the retired Cafe D’Mongo’s gatekeeper
“Sheila Edwards, the white-haired guardian at the gate of entry, retired recently. She was great and we now have her doppelganger at the door.”
Christine Passerini the manager of Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
Larry Mongo and Christine Passerini
“I met Christine in 1990. She just moved to Detroit from Sharon, Pennsylvania. She came to sell me some candles in this very club. I got a big order. Then, two days later I got shot in my stomach, long story.”
“Two months later, I’m out of the hospital and looking thru my notes and one says Christine delivery. So I called her and apologized. She offered to pay for the candles after I told her I got shot. I told her I would pay for them and asked her to meet me in my office at the Himmelhoch building. First thing she asked me was ‘how does it feel to be shot?’ I said ‘you don’t want to be shot’ and we quickly became good friends.”
“I had a chain of eight hair salons at the time and she became a contractor for us. There’s a lot of money in black hair care and manicures so Christine became a licensed manicurist. We had an opening at the Millender Center, she took over there and runs it to this day. She started at Café D’Mongo’s because we were short of help one day. Christine came to the rescue and has been helping out ever since. She’s amazing, she does everything, a true Jill of all trades. We are very fortunate to have her.”
4 Fun Tales from Larry
Larry is a fascinating storyteller and the essence of Larry and Café D’Mongo’s are best illustrated in a series of four anecdotes and tales from The Life of Larry. He has many, many more amazing stories. This is just a small sampling.
Tale # 1: Larry Once Had an Opportunity to Bankroll Eminem
Eminem when he opened up for Wu-Tang Clan (c. 1997)
“Back in the day, my son Jerome and his son Claudio were friends with Proof and Eminem. Proof was cool, always called me Mr. Mongo. Eminem used to rap at Wax Fruit sometimes and one day Jerome brought Marshall to me. He said ‘Dad, this guy’s gonna be the next Elvis’. I took one look up and down at that little white boy and didn’t think that his rapping career was ever going to be a moneymaker. Man was I wrong!”
Eminem during his Lincoln High School years in Warren, Michigan (c. 1987)
“We had the original rapper anyway, back in 1964. His name was Butterball, he was a DJ on Inkster 1440 AM radio. Butterball was the first rapper I ever heard. Wade Briggs was Butterball Jr, it was a guy before him even.”
Tale # 2: Michael Jackson’s Jumpsuit is Hanging in D’Mongo’s
“Michael Jackson was the kindest, warmest human spirit I ever met, an angel. He wasn’t a child molester but he was a fool for trying to be a good guy to devilish people. I knew him thru the Berry Gordy family when I was living at Indian Village Manor and we became friends when we were trying to do a casino with Don Barton. He gave me his jumpsuit as a gift.”
Tale # 3: Larry took Henry Marzette to DuMouchelle’s
The film ‘American Gangster’ is based on the life of Detroit cop & drug kingpin, Henry Marzette.
“I took Henry Marzette to DuMouchelle’s auction house in downtown Detroit once and it changed the black underworld when it came down to furniture. When they realized that furniture and lamps had names like Tiffany and Hunzinger and that it was worth millions, they listened.”
“About six months later, all of them were subscribing to Architecture Digest and buying high-end stuff. They started using the word Henredon. They learned what a Patek Phillipe watch was. Their eyes opened and their world changed. Oriental and Persian rugs started going in their houses. They learned that investments come in different forms, not just money. White culture is white art. Their art is their culture.”
Tale # 4: Larry’s friend George Murphy once had an Opportunity to Bankroll prince
“Around about 1976 or 1977, Quentin Perry who ran Taurus Productions, brought Prince to the Palms Theatre in downtown Detroit, the place is now called the Fillmore. We had a private session with Prince because they wanted us to invest money in him and bankroll his breakthrough.”
“Now at the time, you gotta understand that Prince was a nobody, none of us had ever heard of him or seen him or knew anyone who knew anything about him. Prince comes out on-stage in pantyhose, high heels, bouncing around. We laughed like idiots and walked out like idiots too. We all told Quentin he was crazy and thought Quentin might have been down low gay himself for suggesting this guy. We thought Prince would never make money. We thought wrong and regret it to this day.”
A Tribute to Benjamin “Benji” Mongo (1948-1982)
“Benji was my big brother who I love very much. We were completely loyal brothers to each other. He was a big influence on me growing up. He was an Original, the Miles Davis of the underworld, a rare person. He was like no one else.”
The Future of Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
Michelle Waters, Larry Mongo, Ryan M. Place
There’s a Jean-Paul Sartre quote scrawled on the tiny bathroom wall here, “Existence precedes essence”. Only at Café D’Mongo’s would you find such an existential proposition in the bathroom. And as you can surmise, Larry is a wild fascinating character with a big heart and a lot of true friends. Go to Café D’Mongo’s and if you’re lucky, he might regale you with tales of his life.
The future of Café D’Mongo’s includes:
- Installation of a series of display cases colloquially referred to as ‘The Place Case’ that will feature many rare Detroit artifacts donated by curator Ryan Place.
- Rooftop patio dining sometime in 2018.
- Possibly applying for a State of Michigan historical marker for the building.
- Possibly installing an old school neon sign on the front exterior of Café D’Mongo’s.
Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
“What I love about this club is that from the very beginning, we opened up with a fun crowd of oddballs, people who are not a part of normal society, you know, creative misfits, the entertainment types.”
“People should know that Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is the Toronto of the USA in terms of diversity. The love for diversity here is tremendous. We welcome all kinds of people through our doors every week. We tell people, if you have prejudices, leave them at the door because you will be mixing and having fun with all types of people here.”
“We’re a bunch of misfits that fit together,” says Christine Passerini, “And we were the first bar Downtown to stock Faygo Rock n’ Rye and the first ones to have mismatched glasses.”
“My wife Dianne and I love Detroit. We are lifetime members of the Detroit Yacht Club and members of the Detroit Athletic Club. We love everyone down here and hope you can come check out Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy. Thank You to everyone!”
Larry Mongo on the cover of Grand Circus Magazine
1439 Griswold Street
Detroit, MI 48226
Eugene in the kitchen @ Cafe D’Mongo’s
Larry Mongo honored with a mural inside the Fisher Building
Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy facebook page
Quentin Tarantino at D’Mongo’s in Detroit
Esquire TV names D’Mongo’s one of the best bars in America
Andrew Zimmern features D’Mongo’s on Bizarre Foods
Seros Lunch Detroit
Larry and Dianne (c. 1991)
Seth Ferranti (author of 20+ books and co-writer/co-producer of the White Boy Rick documentary) and Larry Mongo at Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
Boston George Jung (center) and Larry Mongo (right)