Five generations have made Porter Bottle Company a fixture in Detroit for distributing glass and plastic containers to businesses.
When Rena Tepman, son Larry and cousin Dan Grubner separately do their personal grocery shopping, they can spend as many as three hours in a supermarket.
It’s not that they’re preoccupied with food; it’s that they’re preoccupied with containers.
The three are among five generations of a family owning and/or working for Porter Bottle Company in Downtown Detroit, their base for distributing glass and plastic containers; and they want to keep up to the minute on trends and popular choices.
“We don’t just pick our favorite brand of salad dressing,” co-owner Larry says to provide an example of what takes up their time. “We look at every single salad dressing bottle. Dan, our operations manager, has called me on the weekends from someplace, excited about a new bottling line he has noticed.
“I think it’s in our blood.”
Porter Bottle Company has offices on Fort Street and operates a nearby warehouse spanning 45,000 square feet and holding some 900 different containers among hundreds of thousands of total items. Their Detroit presence, since 1936, is maintained because it’s central to many continuing customers and holds easy access for Canadian businesses.
The family, which continued operations after a devastating fire in 1977, is proud to service local individual customers who are starting out — and perhaps short of one bottle cap — as well as large North American manufacturers needing as many as 35,000 containers with as many caps.
The Company’s Roots
Porter Bottle Company was started by Rena’s parents, Dave and Ida Schwartz. Among the diverse products, beyond foods and beverages, that eventually fill their in-stock containers are cosmetics, medicines and cleaning solvents.
“My mom and dad started Porter Bottle right after they got married using the money they received as wedding gifts,” Rena says. “My dad had worked for my grandfather, Sam Schwartz, who washed and sold used bottles after coming to the United States from Hungary.
“It was like recycling as my grandfather worked out of a backyard shed before selling the bottles back to the original factory or others. My grandfather was the bottle cleaner, and my dad was the salesman and the delivery guy. My grandmother, Sadie, handled the books.”
Although Rena’s grandparents wanted her dad to join the established business and make it C.S. Schwartz & Son, Rena’s parents had a spinoff idea.
“My grandparents said they needed to do their own thing,” Larry explains. “My great-grandfather stayed on the east side, and my grandparents purchased an existing business on Fourth and Porter — the Porter Bottle Exchange. They set up on the west side, eventually transitioning into handling only new glass bottles before adding plastics in the 1960s.
“Eight years later, my great-grandfather closed his business and came to my grandfather asking to work with him. He was there from the early 1940s until he retired at the age of 89. He mostly monitored all the trucks that came and went.”
Rena’s late husband, Jerry, who had worked in sales, joined the business in 1981 as Dave Schwartz was preparing to retire. Only one year later, as Jerry was immersed in learning warehouse operations, Schwartz suffered a debilitating heart attack and Jerry took charge, turning to his son to help with the transition.
“When I was 7 years old, my grandfather started taking me to work and instilled this love for Porter Bottle in me,” recalls Larry, sometimes joined by sister Doreen. “He’d ask me to stand on pallets — what he called the stairway to heaven — to screw in light bulbs.
“My grandfather made it a cool and fun experience. I had to pack and repack pallets exactly the way they were before, and I tooled around with my grandfather on a forklift. As I grew older, my grandfather had me writing up purchase orders.”
When Larry was 12 and his dad was in charge, the two joined forces to redo the filing system. Larry filled in the information that Jerry had not yet experienced. As Jerry assumed leadership, Larry went on to advance his education and establish his own career path, first as a database analyst and later with his own eBay business selling archival hobby supplies.
The Newest Generations
After Jerry became ill and passed away in 2007, Larry closed his own business and took charge of Porter Bottle with the partnership of his mom, and the two upgraded the computer operations.
“When my dad stopped working, we had a two-signature checkbook,” says Rena, whose responsibility at that point was handling payments beyond working days in a gift store office.
“I would sign the checks remembering my dad had taught me to notice who would be getting the checks. He told me that the information would stick in my mind and I might need it someday.
“Since Larry had been away, he didn’t know the places that sold to us, but I did. At that point, I became the bookkeeper and started going down to work twice a week.”
The youngest Schwartz descendants — also having fun with family business experi-
ences — have given their attention to inventory and packing pallets for specific orders. They include Evie Dickman 18; Jillian Dickman, 11; and Jordyn Tepman, 8.
Although functions, including warehouse operations, automated over the years, family values sustained. Members of Adat Shalom Synagogue, the family never opened on Shabbat and felt a kinship with Jewish customers developing kosher products, such as wine and traditional cuisine.
When Porter greeting cards go out in December, they’re always about good wishes for the new year instead of religion. As downtown development has brought an enlarging Jewish presence, family members have met newcomers. Next door, a modern apartment building has housed Jewish tenants identified by their showcasing both lulav and etrog at Sukkot.
Ultimately, the family gets the most direct satisfaction from helping people, especially the ones launching businesses (from tasty pickles to skin-soothing shea butter). It is understood that customers’ successes — with the use of Porter containers — also brings them success through return sales.
Since the beginning, the official Porter acknowledgement for walk-ins has remained: “Welcome to Porter Bottle; we’re here to help you.”