Bob and Delores Evans know how to put people at ease. The bar owners do just that at Kovacs, a friendly establishment at 6986 W. Jefferson on Detroit’s southwest side.
On a cool fall day, a stream of semi-trucks kick up dust as they roll by. Kovacs sits in the rundown neighborhood of Delray, which is saturated with industry. U.S. Steel is minutes away. A cement company is moving in across the street.
Bob and Delores count on local commerce to keep them afloat: Blue-collar workers are lunchtime regulars, although downtown businessmen also drop in for chicken and rice or Delores’ famous chili. Bob and Delores know most customers by name.
“Hey, Chuck,” says Bob to a slim fellow in jeans and leather work boots. The man’s face is covered with black soot. He cleans up before sitting down to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
As a few fellows head out, Delores thanks them for stopping in. Kovacs has a small-town feel, which may be due, in part, to the couple’s small-town roots.
Delores and Bob both grew up just outside Detroit in River Rouge. The couple didn’t know each other well back then. Delores graduated from high school in 1958 with Bob’s younger brother.
Bob didn’t finish high school. He dropped out to join the Army in 1954.
“The school had no challenge for me,” says the 66-year-old retired building inspector. “I was a disruptive student. I just didn’t care.”
About a year after high school, Delores moved to Rockwood, another Downriver community, with her first husband. They were married three years when he died unexpectedly during exploratory surgery for an ulcer. The mother of two remained in Rockwood. In 1963, a friend formally introduced her to Bob. They married about a year later.
They lived in Rockwood until 1994, when Bob’s mother died. She left her River Rouge home to the couple, who moved in.
A year later, Delores was elected to the River Rouge school board, a four-year term.
“It was exhausting work, trying to make decisions and have all the information to make the right decision,” says Delores, who donated her $125 a month salary back to the city for community activities such as the annual Easter egg hunt.
She chose not to run for a second term because by then she and her husband were three years into the bar business.
“I couldn’t give both positions the time they needed,” says Delores, who regularly puts in 16-hour days at the bar.
Kovacs opens at 7 a.m. That’s when Delores begins cooking the daily specials and chili, which goes for $3 a bowl. Customers who work the midnight shift come in early to eat, she says.
Delores, who is 63, says it’s much more strenuous than when she worked at Ford Motor Company in the sales and marketing department. She retired in 1990 after 20 years. Bob also finds the long days exhausting.
Kovacs closes about 10 p.m., unless there is a crowd.
“We stay open for them,” says Delores. “It’s pretty much customer-driven.”
But it is not often that they have a crowd. Business noticeably declined after the Sept. 11 attacks. On a good day, about 25 customers stop in for lunch and a beer.
The retired couple purchased the bar in 1996 with the intention of selling it in five years for a profit. It was Bob’s idea. Delores was reluctant until she visited the place.
“It was an old establishment with a good reputation,” she says.
A Hungarian family, the Kovacs, started the bar. They came from northern Ohio, according to Bob, who doesn’t know what brought them to the area. He and Delores bought the business from Mary Kovacs. She had lived in one of the apartments above the bar as did her mother-in-law, who some customers called “Grandma.”
Mary sold Kovacs after her husband, Steve, passed away. Steve had inherited it from his father, who established it at least 60 years ago. The oldest liquor license that Bob and Delores have dates back to 1944. The two-story brick building was built in 1889.
Some longtime patrons remember the Kovacs well.
Eddie Kaysackar is one of them. He has been patronizing the bar since 1985.
“Grandma used to sit in that corner and read the newspaper with a magnifying glass,” says Kaysackar, pointing at a corner table. What he recalls about Steve is his “photographic” memory. If an argument ensued over baseball statistics, Detroit history or other trivia, customers called on Steve to settle it, says Kaysacker, who lives near Brighton. The truck driver works for Yellow Transportation, a freight carrier near Kovacs.
Memories of the bar pour out of Kaysackar, including when actor-director Danny DeVito bought him a beer. DeVito came to Detroit to shoot scenes for the movie Hoffa, which is based on the life of the controversial Teamsters union leader who disappeared in 1975.
Kaysackar says that the film crew was at Kovacs about two weeks. Neither he, Bob nor Delores knows why the neighborhood establishment was chosen.
Bob pops a Hoffa video (always on hand) into the VCR and rewinds to the two-minute Kovacs scene. DeVito, who plays Hoffa’s trusted friend, Bobby Ciaro, is seated at the bar. It is nearly impossible to recognize Kovacs at first. Then the bartender pours DeVito a drink, the camera lingers on it and, for a moment, the red neon sign in the window that reads Kovacs.
Kaysackar says that the film company cleaned up the bar and built a bathroom for the shoot. But Steve wanted the place returned exactly to the way it was.
“I thought it looked better the other way,” laughs Kaysackar.
Kaysacker didn’t think that anyone could replace the Kovacs. But he has become very fond of Delores and Bob.
“They’re open, everyday kind of people,” he says.
He and others may wonder who will replace them.
Delores and Bob, tired from the long hours, are eager to sell. But they haven’t had any offers, says Bob.
Asked what she will do when the bar is sold, Delores instantly answers, “Fish.”
The two avid fishers haven’t had much time on their 28-foot cruiser since buying the bar.
Delores vows: “The next time we retire, we’ll get it right.”
And when they do, they’ll surely be missed.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail email@example.com