Looking Back: Birmingham restaurateur hosted Hoffa before disappearance

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 28, 2021


BIRMINGHAM — It’s one of metro Detroit’s most enduring mysteries, and it’s got a Birmingham connection.

On July 30, 1975, Jimmy Hoffa, a labor union leader with ties to organized crime, was last seen in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township. The restaurant was well known to Hoffa and most residents in the area, and the man behind the restaurant was just as fascinating a figure as Hoffa himself.  

Harris Machus, together with his wife, Elaine, helped his parents run their bakery at 150 W. Maple Road. When Machus was called up for service during World War II, he was quickly promoted to the cavalry because of his experience in the Reserve Officer Training Corp. at Michigan State University — an endeavor he signed up for to get a chance to ride horses.     

Severely wounded and taken prisoner in North Africa, Machus was sent to prisoner of war camps in Italy and Germany. He escaped, but was recaptured and sent to a camp in Poland, where he again escaped and made his way to Ukraine, where he was able to board a British ship and return home.

After his return, Machus took over the family bakery. Sensing a business opportunity with the opening of the Jacobson’s department store down the street, Machus expanded to serving coffee, tea and sandwiches to the customers walking by on their way to and from the store. It was a resounding success.

In 1957, Machus created Harris Machus Enterprises and soon thereafter opened up Machus Adams Square and Machus Red Fox, which became his flagship restaurant. Before Hoffa’s disappearance, the Red Fox was most famous for the food that it served and won multiple national culinary awards. Its success allowed Machus to open up seven additional restaurants all over metro Detroit.

Great food wasn’t Machus’ only goal. He brought a degree of professionalism into the industry as the president and director of the National Restaurants Association, urging consistent service, cleanliness and food quality.  Additionally, he was the president of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, received the First Citizen of Birmingham Award, and was the director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Machus hated the notoriety that Hoffa’s disappearance brought, worrying that people would think he ran restaurants for gangsters and that it would tank his reputation. Instead, it did the opposite, making him and his restaurant into household names all over the country and driving further business. Machus died in 2001 at the age of 92.

— Caitlin Donnelly, Birmingham Museum assistant