Detroit's King Of Corned Beef Dies From Coronavirus Complications

Apr 10, 2020
Originally published on April 10, 2020 6:25 pm

Among the more than 1,200 people in Michigan who have died during the coronavirus pandemic is Otis Knapp Lee, better known as Detroit's king of corned beef. He died Sunday, at age 72.

Lee opened Mr. Fofo's Deli in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood in the early 1970s when he was 25.

"It took off like wildfire," his son, Keith Lee, told TV station Fox 2 Detroit earlier this week. "People loved it. It was basically an overnight success."

The deli's name came from Keith's childhood nickname, Fofo.

The elder Lee's specialties included huge sheet cakes, macaroni and cheese, and a sweet potato pie his grandmother taught him to make.

But he was most famous for heaping corned-beef sandwiches.

The words "corned beef" were written on the deli's front windows. A big "Thank you Detroit" sign stretched overhead.

"It was the go-to place," Keith Lee said. "You know, after church, after the club, just it was the place to be."

The deli catered to some important clients. According to Keith Lee, his father made cakes for both of Bill Clinton's inaugurations.

And every Thanksgiving, lines stretched around the deli when the elder Lee would give away thousands of turkeys.

After nearly 35 years in business, Lee retired and closed the deli.

He got sick about 2 weeks ago.

When the hospital called to say he wasn't getting better, his son Keith raced there to say goodbye. Now, the family is planning a funeral, which they hope to livestream.

Asked what he will miss most about his dad, Keith's voice wavered.

"Him, you know," he said, wiping away tears. "Just him."

All Things Considered has been remembering some of the people who have died from COVID-19, including New Orleans DJ Black N Mild, Brooklyn principal Dez-Ann Romain and New York sociologist William Helmreich.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Michigan, more than 1,200 people have died from COVID-19, including a man known as the corned beef king. That would be 72-year-old Otis Knapp Lee. We're going to take a moment now to remember him.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Lee opened Mr. Fofo's Deli in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood in 1973, when he was just 25.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEITH LEE: It took off. It took off like wildfire. People loved it. It was basically a overnight success.

KELLY: That is Lee's son Keith talking to TV station Fox 2 Detroit. The deli's name came from Keith's childhood nickname - Fofo. Menu specialties included huge sheet cakes, macaroni and cheese and a sweet potato pie - yum - that Lee learned to make from his grandma.

SHAPIRO: But Lee was most famous for his heaping corned beef sandwiches. The words corned beef were written on the deli's front windows; a big Thank-you-Detroit sign stretched overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE: It was the go-to place - you know? - for after church, after the club (laughter). You know, just - it was just the place to be.

KELLY: The deli catered to some important clients. Lee made the cakes for Bill Clinton's inauguration, and every Thanksgiving, lines stretched around the deli, when Lee would give away thousands of turkeys. Lee retired and closed the deli after nearly 35 years in business.

SHAPIRO: He got sick about two weeks ago. When the hospital called to say he wasn't getting better, his son Keith raced there to say goodbye. Now the family is planning a funeral over livestream.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE: Describe my father? Strong. That's the first word that comes to mind - strong.

KELLY: Asked what he will miss most about his dad...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE: Him, you know? Just him.

SHAPIRO: Detroit's corned beef king, Otis Knapp Lee, was 72.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.