How an Ice-Making Company is Succeeding in Detroit

Working in Detroit: The business of service

This article and video is part of a series on Detroit entrepreneurs. See the rest at www.mackinac.org/Detroit.

To succeed in business, you don’t always have to be first, just better. When the Abbo family failed to get reliable ice delivery for their three retail grocery stores 35 years ago, they saw an opportunity.

Saad Abbo remembers the tipping point came one hot summer weekend when his father called on a Thursday for a delivery and the ice showed on Monday.

“My father was so mad that we lost so much business. We waited four days for ice and that shouldn’t have happened," Abbo said. "He said that we could do a lot better — let’s open an ice company.”

The company purchased a small five-ton ice-maker, which could make 10,000 pounds of ice a day, and two trucks. In the first year, Abbo and his brother signed up 50 customers. The following year, their customer base increased to 150. Today, U.S. Ice is the largest independent ice company in Detroit, serving 3,000 customers. Recently, the company expanded into the ice carving business.

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“My father put in my mind the reason we are in business is because of service,” said Abbo.

One of Abbo’s customers is Detroit’s Imperial Supermarket.

“If we run out, we call them and they get a truck here right away,” said supermarket manager Justin Shina.

U.S. Ice has managed to grow despite Detroit’s economic and demographic decline during the 30 years it’s been in business. 

“There were hard times and times where we almost didn’t make it but you stay on it," Abbo said. "You work hard. You work every day. I would be here seven days a week without going home sometimes.”

One of the biggest challenges was the Detroit city bureaucracy. Getting permits to expand was difficult. Abbo was prepared to leave Detroit. But several years ago, he noticed a change.

“Now, when we did this big expansion, with the help of the Chaldean Chamber, the city actually worked with us this time. I really saw an improvement, and for me, that was the first time ever,” he said.

Another challenge has been staying relevant. Most food companies can make their own ice. U.S. Ice had to offer something different and Abbo’s son states it without flinching.

“Service. Service. Service. He drilled it into my head since I was a kid and I wasn’t even here (working) but he naturally says these things because my grandpa, his dad, was so adamant about it and it was passed on to him and he passed it on to me," said Jacob Abbo. "There is nothing more important than service. You can have the cheaper price but if you don’t have the service, none of that matters. You want to make sure they have no reason to go to anyone else but you.”

Automation has allowed the company to reach more stores and hire more drivers. Within a few years, the company hopes to have plants throughout the state.

“I get calls from Lansing, from Traverse City, from Canada, because they don’t get their service there and they ask me when can you come out here,” said the senior Abbo. He says a mass-market retail chain is interested in contracting with U.S. Ice for its stores in Michigan.

The American Arab Chamber of Commerce inducted Abbo into its Entrepreneur Hall of Fame and he’s been recognized by the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder.

“I thank my father for pushing me to do this even though we were against him, but you know now, I thank him every, every day. It’s been a blessing. I have three sons and hopefully, they can learn,” Saad Abbo added.

This is the second in our "Working in Detroit" series. The other stories can be found here.


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