Jerry Crete pulls out his cell phone, turns on its flashlight, and aims the beam into the basement rafters above his head to show what it’s revealed.
April 5 of ’85
A name and message preserved in faded wood alongside dozens if not hundreds more. Signatures of judges and lawyers, doctors and dentists, teachers and principals – all with one thing in common:
They got their start at Ideal Party Store.
Crete, 55, is Ideal’s President and third-generation owner. He knows many of the names and recounts stories as he points them out. It’s tradition for employees at the Johnson Street location to write their names in these rafters, a monument of sorts to the many who took their turn providing customers the level of service Ideal has built its reputation on the last 87 years.
Lately, Crete has talked a lot about tradition. It comes with the territory when your family business is getting a new family.
Ideal announced on Feb. 24 its two party store locations and the Shamrock Dairy Bar were being acquired by Forward Corp. of Standish. The deal was finalized June 14. Like Ideal, Forward is family-owned and operated, and just celebrated its 96th birthday. Crete had his eye on Forward for some time as a possible successor, and the more he got to know the company the more excited he became.
Call it cliché, but one word kept coming to mind to describe the match between his stores and their new owner:
Abby Moniz grabs her phone and checks a video she just posted to Forward Corp.’s company message board. She’s sent out notice to all employees that Forward is acquiring Ideal Party Store and the likes and comments are starting to come in.
Welcome to the Forward Family!
It’s a common term around the company’s Standish office – Forward Family – and has been used as long as anyone can remember at a place that is a family company in both a literal and figurative sense.
A fifth-generation president, Moniz leads the company that her great-great grandfather Austin Forward founded in 1925. Known most for its convenience stores, her father and grandfather helped grow the company to include Subway restaurants, hotels, heating fuels, a screen printing and embroidery business, and the LumberJack Restaurant in West Branch.
But “family” also extends to the 900-plus employees who work for Forward, many of whom have been with them almost as long as the 41-year-old Moniz has been alive. Work family is a concept near and dear to Forward Corp.’s heart, and their family just got a bit bigger.
A Bay City resident, Moniz is well aware of Ideal’s sterling reputation. She lives not too far from the Salzburg location and says Shamrock is her go-to stop for ice cream in the summer. When the opportunity came to acquire Ideal, it was one Moniz couldn’t pass up.
“Ideal Party Store and its staff are amazing,” Moniz said. “They have such a rich history and tradition, and I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish together.”
It all started with a card table and a cigar box.
Roy “Jay” Crete was just a baby when his parents Roy A. and Julia La Rocque opened Ideal Beer Store on Bay City’s East side. A bread driver at the time, Roy A. saw a business opportunity on the heels of prohibition’s repeal and in 1934 opened Ideal with $800, a card table for a counter, and a cigar box for a register.
Jay, now 88 years old, sits at a table holding a picture of his parents, Roy and Julia, wiping the occasional tear from his eyes. His memory is as sharp as his wits as he cracks jokes in between telling stories about a business that has literally been his entire life.
His mother used to run the store by day with his father taking over from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. when he got home from work. Back in those days, business operated very differently. At the time there was no way to buy beer cold in the area. So with no electric refrigeration, they’d get 1,000 pounds of ice delivered each day and placed it in troughs insulated by sawdust to keep it cold.
Beer, mind you, they’d have to order three or four times a day from local breweries. Beer was rationed and cash was in short supply, so the Cretes would place orders as they sold product from their store. The Brewery owners would deliver it in person throughout the day.
“There was one brewer my dad ordered from named Dick Bromfield,” Jay says. “My dad would order from him, sell out, and then order again and again. Dick started calling my dad before he left for the day and would ask if he wanted him to drop any cases off on his way home.”
Roy A. and Julia built a new building in 1938 – the current Johnson Street location – and the business grew over the years and became a community staple. Ideal’s past is speckled with interesting Bay City history, including selling cases of champagne to Defoe Shipbuilding Company to use to christen new ships.
Jay himself says he started working at the store when he was six, sorting bottles and doing other odds and ends. As for a career he never had intentions of getting into the family business full-time. He was prepared to head off to dental school but was drafted into the service in 1952. He served 2 years before returning and going back to work at the store. He married in 1958 and took over Ideal from his father a year later.
Jay secured a liquor license in 1962 which led to another boom in business. Then in 1976, with every last square inch of floor and storage space spoken for, Crete added on to the store and doubled its size.
A bigger and better store was necessary to support Crete and his wife Anne’s growing family of seven children. Children, Jay says, who also spent their fair share of time learning the Crete trade.
“All of my kids worked at the store,” Jay says, before adding with a chuckle, “Whether they wanted to or not.”
“Telling my dad I was going to sell was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Jay’s son, Jerry, says somberly. “We’ve talked about it over the years, but when it finally happened it was harder than I thought.”
To understand why he made the decision you need to go back in time to 1979.
Three years after Jay Crete doubled the size of the store, 13-year-old Jerry began working as a stock boy, learning the ropes of what would eventually become his profession. Like his father, he originally hadn’t planned on going into the family business full-time.
Jerry graduated from high school in 1983 and after two years at Delta College he attended Michigan State University and earned a degree in finance. Out of college he held positions at other companies but would take vacation days over the summer and holidays to come back and help at the family store.
In 1996, Jerry finally came back to work at the store full-time as president of Ideal. Even though he was working just one job, that one job was a tough one. The convenience and party store industry is fast-paced and being an owner operator means you wear many hats. Jerry found himself wearing those hats 70 to 80 hours a week. The hours grew even more when the Westside location opened on Salzburg Ave. in 2010.
“I missed a lot of moments with my family,” Jerry says. “I love what I do, but there are a lot of things you don’t get to be a part of because you’re running a business 365 days a year.”
He’s had plenty of family help along the way, though. His cousin Jim Campbell has worked at the store over 30 years and is the manager of the Johnson St. location. His sister Mary oversees the Salzburg location and is the creative power behind the store’s catering and wine/liquor basket business.
Jerry’s son, Jay D. – named after the elder Crete – is part of the team, too. He started scooping ice cream at Shamrock as a teenager and today is in charge of purchasing all the beer and liquor for the stores. Even Jerry’s wife Annette, a nurse by trade, would help out at the store when needed from time-to-time.
Still, the surge in growth put Ideal in a tricky spot – they’d become almost too big for one family to handle, but not yet big enough to add additional resources and support.
So after decades in the industry, Jerry started thinking about who would be best suited to take over the Ideal enterprise.
His first thought was Forward.
Coming from a family business, it was important to Jerry that the company end up in the hands of another local company, preferably one that was family-run. He didn’t know anyone at Forward personally, but reached out to Moniz through a mutual friend to gauge interest. That interest was strong. Whenever the time came when Jerry was ready, Moniz wanted him to give Forward a call.
That call came at the end of last year.
Few will ever forget the chaotic year that was 2020.
Jerry Crete will forever remember it as the busiest year in the store’s history. With bars and restaurants shuttered or restricted for much of the year, Ideal found itself at the intersection of COVID-19 and the hobbyist beer and bourbon boom.
The business was growing so fast he could barely keep up, and he knew he couldn’t maintain the hectic pace much longer. So after 42 years in the business, he picked up the phone and told Moniz he was ready to step away.
“It just felt like the right time,” Crete says. “We’ve grown so much and need help to keep growing. Forward can help us do that.”
Moniz is excited, though she knows how hard it must be for Jerry. Like him, she has grown up in the family business. As a little girl she sold candy in the Forward break room and then graduated to odd jobs in the summer like counting coupons or auditing store paperwork.
When she was old enough to waitress she began working at the LumberJack and like Crete started her post-college life outside the family trade. Her father insisted she work elsewhere first and so she started her career at Honeywell Aerospace and worked there for nearly a decade before returning to Forward. Even then, she spent four years learning the ins and outs of Forward’s different operations before being named president in 2015
“I can relate to what Jerry is feeling,” Moniz says. “Working in a family business can be rewarding, but it has its challenges. We will do everything we can to continue the legacy he and his family built.”
Forward plans on continuing that legacy by sticking with what works. The Ideal Party Store name will be retained as will all of the store’s staff. Jerry is also staying on, serving as a consultant to Forward and helping them with their 29 other stores.
“We want to learn from Jerry and the Ideal team,” Moniz says. “They’re great at what they do, and I think they can help us in a number of ways.”
That’s music to Jerry’s ears. He’s looking forward to having more resources and is also excited for his employees. Forward provides many opportunities he cannot as a smaller operation.
“One of the reasons I chose Forward was because I knew they would come in and treat it like their own,” he says. “They understand what it’s like to have reputation and tradition and I’m confident they won’t just take over Ideal, but make it even better for our customers and employees.”
More than 35 years have come and gone since Barry Kenniston scratched his name in the Johnson St. rafters. Yet he remembers his time there with a vivid fondness.
Kenniston recently retired after a successful career as an educator and principal with Essexville-Hampton Public Schools, but got his start at Ideal Party Store as a senior in high school. He says his experience at Ideal was influential and helped shape the person and educator he became.
“I have so many positive memories working at the store,” Kenniston says. “You could not help but learn a strong work ethic from Jay if you watched him. He would always be the first one to the store and the last to leave.”
Kenniston recounts fond memories of learning about different beer and wine, and says all these years later he still remembers some customers’ go-to drinks or the lottery numbers they played. He stills sees some of them in the community.
He also talks about how during busy holidays it was hard getting time off, so the Cretes would make big holiday dinners for the employees to eat at the store before or after their shifts. Today, Kenniston will make it a point to grab breakfast at Big Boy on occasion – a common morning hangout for Jay – and the two will stop and chat about their families.
“The Crete family knows how to take care of their employees,” he says. “Working at Ideal Party Store was a rewarding experience for me and I wish Forward the best in continuing a tradition of excellence at Ideal.”
Another name etched somewhere in those rafters is that of Harry Gill, Bay County’s 18th Circuit Court Judge. Gill shares the same fond memories of Ideal that Kenniston does, having been hired in the summer of 1968 between his junior and senior years of high school. He stocked shelves, waited on customers, helped with deliveries and would otherwise do anything and everything asked of him. He worked summers, weekends, and holidays all the way into his time in law school and would ultimately spend parts of nine years working at Ideal.
“They were wonderful to me,” Gill says. “I learned an awful lot working for them about work ethic and how to treat and deal with people. It was a wonderful opportunity.”
When Gill worked there, Roy A. and Julia were still active in the business. He says Julia’s cooking was “one of the best parts of the job,” and that her hot dogs and banana bread were world famous.
He also says his time at Ideal ultimately led to lifelong friendships. He says Jay Crete is “one of the dearest friends I have in my life” and that Crete was even in his wedding in 1984. They still talk often.
“I had wonderful parents who helped me become who I am,” Gill says. “But after that I would say Jay Crete and his parents are probably amongst the largest and best influences of my life.”
In this new chapter, Jerry is most excited about spending more time with family.
An entire life in the industry has left him wanting to slow down, and he jokes that working as a consultant for Forward will allow him to work “part-time” at 40 hours a week.
He and Annette plan to travel more and want to take the elder Jay down to Florida. Also in the works is a family trip to Germany so Jay can return to where he was stationed in the service all those years ago. The trips would be almost impossible to take if he still owned and operated a business.
As for Jay, he continues to come into the store every day and wants to do so as long as his health allows. He takes care of daily banking and enjoys sorting penny candy into bags for the children, many of whom have grandparents or great grandparents he’s known over the years.
When asked what he’s been most proud of, though, he begins wiping his eyes. Jay’s tear ducts, they say, are right next to his heart, and so Jerry steps in to help his father find the words.
It’s those names in the rafters, like Barry Kenniston and Harry Gill. That’s what has meant the most after all these years.
“The employees we’ve had, it’s their success that gives us pride,” Jerry says. “Maybe they were shy and working here helped them get out of their shell. Or maybe it helped them get through school. Seeing them, hearing from them, and visiting with them when they come back in has been the greatest part. That’s what we’re most proud of.”