By Michael Yockel
James Riddle Hoffa scheduled a lunch meeting for the afternoon of July 30, 1975, to take place at Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, a tony northwest Detroit suburb. At 62 years old, the ex-Teamsters president had spent almost five years of his 13-year sentence behind bars at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA–convicted in 1964 of jury tampering, conspiracy and pension fund fraud, he finally entered the big house in 1967–when he and his attorneys cut a deal with the U.S. government in 1971: President Richard Nixon would commute Hoffa's sentence, provided Hoffa agreed to resign as Teamsters boss and refrain from participation in union activities until 1980.
But with Teamsters elections scheduled for 1976, Hoffa had begun angling to reclaim his old job from former lieutenant Frank Fitzsimmons, filing suit with the feds to lift the ban against his taking an active role with the union. Even if that gambit fizzled–and its success looked grim–Hoffa figured that President Gerald Ford was unlikely to push the panic button and toss him back in the pokey if he broke his pledge: the first presidential primary only slightly more than six months away, and Ford probably wouldn't want to risk alienating Hoffa's loyal minions among the Teamsters rank and file. Meanwhile, Hoffa-versus-Fitzsimmons factional violence had recently roiled the union's Detroit local: its president's boat had been blown up, its vice president's car had been dynamited and an organizer had been beaten.
Dressed in blue pants and a blue pullover shirt, Hoffa left his two-story, cottage-style summer home on Big Square Lake, 40 miles north of Detroit, at 1:15 p.m. on July 30, telling his wife he'd be back by 4. He'd be lunching, he added, with his chum Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone, a Detroit mafioso, plus some other men. Then he fired up his huge, green, two-door 1974 Pontiac for the 19-mile drive to the Red Fox.
With its master-of-the-hounds decor and white tablecloths, the 270-seat Machus Red Fox catered to a moneyed clientele, serving grandiloquent surf-and-turf dishes–baked Boston scrod, rack of lamb a la Leopold, veal scaloppine a la Française–in an era just before the U.S. was slammed by successive tsunamis of ethnic cuisines: Szechwan, Thai, sushi, Tex-Mex, Vietnamese, Mongolian BBQ. Located next door to a shopping center on bustling Telegraph Rd., the Red Fox, open since December 1965, functioned as the mothership in the expanding empire of 67-year-old restaurateur/baker Harris O. Machus. Adjacent to the Red Fox was a Machus-owned pastry shop. Elsewhere in the Detroit metro area he owned: 160 by Machus, Machus Adams Square, Mr. Mac's Stable, the Paddock, Machus Sly Fox and two bakeries.
Hoffa was no stranger to the Red Fox, and enjoyed its food and atmosphere so much that the restaurant hosted the wedding reception of his son, James Hoffa Jr., at the time a Teamsters lawyer. But according to the Red Fox's manager, the elder Hoffa never entered the restaurant on July 30. Apparently, he parked his car at the north end of the Red Fox lot, where he waited for his lunchmates. When they failed to post, Hoffa phoned his wife at 2:30, asking if Tony Jack had called; no, she told him. Not long afterward he phoned his close crony Louis Linteau, owner of an airport limousine service: "Where the hell's Giacalone?" he barked. "He stood me up."
The last time anyone saw Jimmy Hoffa–anyone who'll admit it, anyway–he was still waiting in the Red Fox parking lot at 2:45 p.m. Shortly thereafter he evaporated into the ether, engendering mega-font headlines and thousands of crass jokes concerning his disappearance and ultimate whereabouts.
Immediately, Harris Machus (rhymes with Backus) fretted about possible adverse publicity. "He was just horrified," remembers Robert J. Machus, Harris' son and current president of Machus Enterprises, speaking over the phone from Naples, FL. "And he was very, very worried that it was going to be bad for business. Because he thought that people would think, 'Oh my God! What kind of place do we have here where people like Jimmy Hoffa and dadadadada would be hanging out?' It wasn't his idea of a desirable kind of association."
Not surprisingly, however, the Red Fox, already extremely popular, flourished even more, its newfound cachet as Hoffa's vanishing point attracting countless curiosity seekers. "People would come in from out of town from time to time," Bob Machus recalls, "and say [affects raspy voice], 'Oh, so this is the place where Jimmy Hoffa disappeared.'"
Born in Saulte Ste. Marie, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, on July 10, 1908, Harris Machus moved with his parents to East Lansing when he was still a baby. He grew up there–his father Hans, a German immigrant, owned a bakery–then went on to graduate from Michigan State University in 1932, earning a bachelor's degree in economics. After college he worked for Standard Brands, a grocery supplier, gradually ascending through the company's ranks. But not long before the U.S. entered World War II, Machus, an ROTC officer, was summoned by the Army; at the same time he moved with his wife Elaine, also a 1932 MSU grad, to Birmingham–a leafy northwest Detroit suburb where in 1933 Hans had relocated his bakery, renowned for its Black Forest torte–to take over the family business upon his father's death.
As a tank commander with the rank of captain, Machus saw action in North Africa. In 1943 the Axis forces defeated his company–his tank was hit and disabled–during one of several encounters that, taken together, constituted the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Wounded, his tank in flames, Machus nonetheless managed to drag himself and a member of his injured crew to safety, only to be promptly captured. Sent to a prisoner-of-war camp hospital in Italy, Machus, upon his recovery, was transferred to an actual POW camp. While being moved via train to yet a different facility, he broke through the bars in the window of his boxcar and leaped from the train under cover of darkness as it chugged through the Italian Alps.
Given sanctuary by mountain villagers, Machus survived for several months before a German patrol discovered him, took him into custody and shipped him to POW camps in Germany, then Poland, where he kept in shape with a daily regimen of walking the fence's perimeter. As the Red Army approached the camp in Poland, the Germans hustled out the inmates, but a resourceful Machus escaped amid a hail of bullets, finding refuge in a barn's haystack. He eventually wended his way to Russian lines, only to experience his most severe wartime deprivations.
"He came back not happy with the Russians," Bob Machus explains. "He often said that he came closer to getting killed by the Russians [than the Germans]."
Along with other Allied POWs, Machus marched with the Red Army almost 250 miles to Russian hq near Warsaw, was sent to the port of Odessa on the Black Sea and, finally, boarded a British ship bound for Istanbul.
Awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star for heroism, Machus returned from the war to burgeoning Birmingham, where he rejoined his wife and dove into the bakery business. In 1952 he opened his first eatery, Machus West Maple Restaurant and Pastry Shop, a 22-seat stool-and-counter affair, then five years later expanded it into an all-pink, 90-seat–later 155–dining room called 160 by Machus, offering salads, sandwiches and pastries to Birmingham's ladies who lunch. (It also boasted a green lunch-counter "stag table," although Machus often kidded that "the ladies took it over" within a week.)
Next came Machus Adams Square, a cafeteria with a bakeshop on Birmingham's east side, in 1965; then Machus Red Fox and its pastry shop; Mr. Mac's Stable, a dining room/lounge, and the Paddock, a self-serve cafeteria, in Dearborn, followed in 1973; Machus Sly Fox, less formal than the Red Fox, in Birmingham in 1973; and two dining-and-bar operations aimed at a hipper crowd–Foxys by Machus, in Rochester, and Foxys of Troy–in 1979 and 1981, respectively. At its apogee in the mid-80s, Machus Enterprises ruled eight restaurants and three bakeshops, raking in more than $10 million in gross sales annually.
It was the Red Fox, however, that established Machus' rep as a distinguished restaurateur.
"He was definitely an influence on all the great restaurants in this area," Victoria Connolly, a former chef in Machus' chain and now proprietress of Victoria's Delights, told a Pontiac newspaper last month. "He was a pioneer in fine dining. It [the Red Fox] was a destination place, the place to go, the place to be and be seen."
After serving as president of the DC-based National Restaurant Association, the industry's principal trade group, from May 1984 to May 1985, Machus started to wind down his business activities, retiring in 1987 and handing over operations to his son. By then the dining scene in Birmingham–and elsewhere–had begun to drift away from the clubbiness of the Red Fox; and despite Machus' 1985 admonition to a restaurant trade magazine that "If you stay still, you move backward–you've got to keep moving," the Red Fox, with its slowly fading-from-memory Jimmy Hoffa connection, gradually fell from favor.
"The restaurant really didn't shift with the times," admits Bob Machus. "It remained a fine-dining, tableside service, continental, formal, and very expensive restaurant."
When the property management company that owns the real estate under the Red Fox declined to renew the restaurant's lease, it folded in February 1996, replaced by an outpost of a prosperous Italian chain, whose owner, referring to the spot's Hoffa legacy, superciliously confided to Crain's Detroit Business, "We decided not to take advantage of that. We think it would be in bad taste."
Harris Machus outlasted the Red Fox by nearly five years, spending his last decade shuttling between his Birmingham home and a condo in North Palm Beach, FL, and finally expiring from cancer on Jan. 16, age 92, in an assisted living facility in Naples, FL. He also outlasted the Red Fox's most notorious patron. On Dec. 8, 1982, a Michigan probate judge declared James R. Hoffa "officially dead" as of July 30, 1982, seven years to the day of his disappearance. As to his ultimate fate, no one has yet come forward to elucidate. A July 1982 article in The Washington Post related that the prevailing theory goes something like this: After his kidnapping by persons unknown–the mob, rival elements of the Teamsters, whomever–Hoffa was murdered, then "compacted, shredded, and incinerated at a garbage disposal company in Hamtramck, just outside Detroit."
The Red Fox dressing recipe
1/4 c. salad oil or peanut oil
1/3 c. white vinegar
1/3 c. sugar
2 t. salt (or use less if desired)
Combine all ingredients and chill. Use on salad and toss well. Add crumbled bacon, crumbled Roquefort cheese and croutons on top.