Putnam: Dave Miller closing Fish & Chips, where he started as a teen fry cook in 1970
LANSING – In August 1970, just before his junior year at Eastern High School, Dave Miller reported for orientation at the new Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips opening at 2418 E. Michigan Ave. on Lansing’s eastside.
Miller was early that first day, a trait that made him at first a beloved employee and later successful owner of the business. He was a fry cook, and it was his first job.
“I liked it right away,” he said.
Nearly 48 years later, Miller is still there, though not for much longer.
At age 63, he’s putting down the fry basket for good.
Renamed Fish & Chips in 1988, the restaurant will stay open at least through April, then will close permanently.
Miller’s long-term lease was up and he decided not to renew based on declining business and the long hours needed to keep it going. The building owner plans to sell the property.
Miller, a Haslett resident, is a well-known figure in the area, not only because of his business but for his 14 years as a basketball coach at Lansing Catholic High School, Williamston High School and Haslett High School, where he was assistant and then interim girls varsity coach, with a 14-8 record this year.
In 1970, Miller had no idea that he would stay for nearly five decades. Back then, you went to college or to work at GM. He ruled out factory work because it would be the same thing over and over.
He stops and laughs at that thought as he’s still frying the same Atlantic cod he served in 1970.
But he wanted to interact with people, not machinery.
“You see a lot of people,” he said. “That’s the part I’ll miss ... Most of the people who come here have been coming for years.”
Miller studied at Lansing Community College with plans to become an elementary school teacher or social worker – “I wanted to save the world” – but life tugged him along in another direction.
He was an only child. He was only 20 when his father, a musician and appliance salesman, died. His late mother needed him and his job was only a mile away.
Miller was a manager by 18. By 25, he and owner Harold Bender worked out a deal to slowly transfer the business to Miller.
He was the owner by 1988 when it dropped the Arthur Treacher’s franchise and became just Fish & Chips.
Bender, 92, is still in Miller's life and shows up for coffee at the restaurant each weekday morning before Miller opens at 10 a.m.
Bender calls Miller The Mayor of Michigan Avenue.
“He’s always been trustworthy. He always was on time,” Bender said of Miller. “He just excelled. He got better and better and better. He could run anybody’s business, believe me.”
Bender and his brother also owned another Arthur Treacher’s franchise in East Lansing on Grand River, starting around 1975, and Miller helped manage that too. That restaurant closed in the ‘80s.
When I asked Miller if Bender became his surrogate dad so many years ago when his own father died, he teared up a little and answered: “Yes, very much so.”
Bender was the best man at Miller's wedding in 1983. Miller married another Quaker from the Class of ’72, Susan Hadden, after they reconnected at their 10-year class reunion. They’ll celebrate their 35th anniversary in June.
The couple has three children, Anni Kotch, 33, a social worker in the Brighton area; Eric, 31, a chemical engineer in Royal Oak; and Mackie, 29, a packaging engineer in Richmond, Virginia. All three worked at the restaurant when they were in high school.
He’s seen the ups and downs of the business.
In 1971, the year after the restaurant opened, the area was saturated with fast-food seafood restaurants and the business struggled. There were 18 in the area, Miller recalls, and by 1972, it dropped to just two. With so many closing, business on Michigan Avenue was solid and steady again.
It stayed that way, until around 2001. Over the years, traffic has shifted to Saginaw and Oakland. Michigan is no longer the main thoroughfare. He said the opening of Eastwood Towne Center in 2002 took its toll.
As business declined, Miller took over more and more of the work. He has just five employees, four of them part-time. Most afternoons it’s just him. He takes orders, cooks the food and serves it. He also does prep work and cleans the building, putting in 14- and 15-hour days.
He still eats the fried fish with coleslaw and fries every day – just switching up the condiments among ketchup, vinegar and tartar sauce.
The building is much the same as it was in 1970, though a "greenhouse" was added at the front for extra seating in 1984 and a drive-thru in 1985.
With retirement looming, he’s looking forward to coaching basketball, refereeing youth basketball and traveling.
“I haven’t gone anywhere in 10 years,” he said.
Still, he has no regrets.
“We put three kids through college and they came out with no debt. That’s all my goal was,” he said. “It was a wonderful living. We had a lot of very good years.”