April 27 2011 12:00 AM

Sip ’n Snack has been an Okemos institution since the 1950s

    art5775

    Retirement is a dirty word to Valentine Korrey. The
    88-year-old drives himself to work at 2 a.m. five mornings a week, to
    the same grill he’s been cracking eggs on, to the same stainless steel
    counters he’s been making Coney sauce on, to the same restaurant he’s
    owned for over five decades.


    You might have driven by Sip ’n Snack on Okemos Road
    hundreds of times without noticing it. Maybe you’ve seen the camel in
    the window (it’s what caught my eye), but chances are that tuba museum
    restaurant on the corner or the lingerie store with prominently  displayed unmentionables captured your attention instead.


    Sip ’n Snack is right there though,  a
    small town holdover from a time before big-box stores and concrete
    sprawl were introduced by the Meridian Mall and — another dirty word in
    Sip ’n Snack — chain restaurants brought stiff corporate competition.  


    Korrey shows his age. By closing time at 2 p.m. his face
    is a puffy topography of red folds and creases. He walks with a slight
    hunch and has trouble hearing. He’s not fond of interviews anymore,
    either. So Peter Wade, a Meridian Township retiree and daily volunteer
    for his old pal, Val, kindly agreed to chat.


    "He knows more about me than I do," Korrey says.


    Wade, a brusque man with a bald crown and a sure
    handshake, is Korrey’s junior by a generation. "This was the only
    restaurant in Okemos for years," Wade says. Between questions, Wade —
    with a deer trophy on his sweater — talks gun gauges with his barber
    from next door.


    "It’s like family here," Wade says, plainly, sweeping a
    hand at walls of photographs. Such sentiment has nothing to do with
    marketing at Sip ’n Snack; it’s a fact as sure as it’s cold in winter.   


    One wall of photos comprises a collective patron shrine: Dozens of framed photographs commemorate now-deceased friends.  


    Wade motions to another wall of glossy photos.  There’s Bobby Woods, who owned the gas station up the street, Bill Bankroft from next door, and this is Harold Hodge.  That guy was a tree trimmer, Wade says, pointing to the yellowed faces in the pictures. She was a teacher, he laid cement.  


    "This was the meeting place for people in town for years," Wade says.


    Three people operate Sip ’n Snack on any given day. Korrey
    cooks, of course, and there’s a dishwasher and waitress. That’s it.
    Between orders, Korrey, in a white apron, leans into a shiny metal
    counter, surveying a place that’s been filled with conversations ranging
    from the Korean War to the Japanese tsunami.


    The food is simple, nothing fancy,
    exactly what you’d expect. A breakfast special with two eggs, bacon,
    potatoes, toast and coffee runs $5.75. A couple of dozen sandwiches —
    burgers, Coney dogs, ham, grilled cheese, chicken — run from $3.25 to
    $4.50.


    "We’re famous for our Coney dogs," Wade says. "Val makes his own Coney sauce, he doesn’t buy it."


    A hot dog split down the middle is the carriage for Val’s
    cumin-based Coney sauce. It’s topped with a bright yellow ridge of
    mustard and a handful of diced white onions. Onion rings ($2.75) are a popular side: Thick batter, fried golden brown, encases the crunchy bracelets. 


    Silver and green stools are raised a step
    off the floor at the lunch counter, where I imagine a row of diners
    eating burgers and sipping Cokes. Local businesses advertise their
    services on the menus. An old police scanner, now defunct, sits atop the
    soda dispenser.


    The waitress, Sherry Niles, rings up $7.45  on
    an old-style cash register. White digits on black rolls spin as she
    punches keys — kathunk-kathunk, kathunk-kathunk — seven times until the
    right price shows through the register window.


    This is Niles’ day job. She likes her other work at a hotel, too, but at Sip ’n Snack, it’s different.


    "There’s balance here," she says. "I’ve
    worked other jobs where it’s all buttoned up and corporate. It’s like
    family here. It’s balanced."


    It’s just past 11 in the morning. A lone
    trio is finishing up a late breakfast. Korrey says the gas to the stove
    is on. It’s running, he says again. Dishes rattle and clank in the
    backroom. Wade and I chat in a back corner. His barber says goodbye from
    the front door: "Nice to meet you." Cars stream by, north and south.
    The sidewalk is empty.  


    "This place hasn’t changed at all," Wade says.