Atlas tenderloin tradition lives on: Family pays homage to 'sticker lady' at Carmel deli

September 26, 2005

But her connection to the grocery runs deeper.

Her mother, Debbie Davis, was an Atlas institution, earning her "sticker lady" nickname from children who received the treats she kept in a toy treasure chest at her register.

Debbie died in June 2004 at age 52, following a prolonged battle with breast cancer. In her memory, husband Mike Davis created the "Debbie's Make You Smile Fund" to benefit the Indiana University Cancer Center. It is supported by the sale of the tenderloins now available at Milender's deli.

In the year since he started the memorial, proceeds have amounted to $35,000.

First-time patrons of Happy Everything often are surprised to learn the 30-yearold Milender is the owner. A small sign announcing "Indy's most famous beef tenderloin returns" and a photograph of Debbie that adorn the counter offer the only hint of the Atlas link.

"They come in here and see the picture of my mom, and they see me walk out of the back, and they say, 'Oh my God, why didn't you tell me,'" the energetic Milender said. "She's my idol. Maybe that's why I'm continuing her legacy." Milender, a Carmel High School graduate who earned a general studies degree from Indiana University in 1997, spent time before and after college at Atlas trimming slabs of beef tenderloin into filets. They were so popular that people would brave long lines stretching outside the store to serve the steaks during the holidays.

She left a few years before the supermarket closed in May 2002, but enjoyed her stay at the family business. Debbie's father, Morris Adler, and her aunt and uncle, Eleanor and Sid Maurer, owned the store.

Thumbing through a scrapbook, Milender shows the letter of recommendation Sid Maurer wrote for her, in longhand, before he died in 2000. Atlas remained open nearly two more years.

Thousands donated

Debbie started working at Atlas as a teen-ager, meeting Mike Davis when he strolled through her checkout line. After Sid Maurer's death, she ran the supermarket despite her illness.

Mike, who had operated Davis Brothers Construction Co. for many years, left the business and began helping out in the meat department and office to be near her.

"I enjoyed the people and taking my wife back and forth to work," he recalled. "Plus, I was able to be with her."

More than a year after Atlas closed, customers still clamored for the tenderloins. So Debbie contacted the distributor and took it upon herself to ensure the tenderloin tradition continued.

Word spread and in November 2003, orders began flowing in. Worried that they wouldn't be able to make all the deliveries, Mike got help from Bethlehem Lutheran Church on East 56th Street, which let them sell the beef from there.

The church also houses the Meridian Kessler Neighborhood Association, and Davis still advertises the tenderloins in its newsletter.

Caroline J. Farrar, executive director of the neighborhood association, has yet to visit the new deli but thinks the Atlas connection will serve it well.

"Atlas and the whole [tenderloin] effort had really been dear to [Debbie's] heart," Farrar said. "She was just a contagiously happy individual, and she brought the best out in everyone that she ever met."

Two weeks before she died, Mike dressed Debbie for a delivery to Geist, which would be their last together. Through misty eyes, he described the chore as a labor of love for his wife, who enjoyed visiting her old friends from Atlas.

Following her death, Mike stopped the deliveries because he said the fun was gone. A few months later, however, he had a change of heart and contributed $20,000 to launch the "Debbie's Make You Smile Fund," supported by the sale of the six-pound tenderloins, which retail for $6.99 a pound.

He resumed deliveries from his home and sold $15,000 worth of tenderloins during the 2004 holiday season. The money helps provide supportive services to cancer patients through the IU Cancer Center's CompleteLife Program. Through the fund, massages now are available two days a week for patients receiving treatment.

Mary Anne Bowyer-Cherry, a registered nurse at the center, said Debbie preferred receiving her chemotherapy in the two large rooms that can accommodate several patients, as opposed to the private rooms. That's because she enjoyed being with the others and often would stay and visit long after her treatment finished. A plaque honoring Debbie sits across from her favorite chair.

Traditions continue

Melinder, meanwhile, left Atlas in 1999 to give the corporate world a try. She landed a job at Thomson Multimedia, coordinating the corporation's information technology contractors. When the economy soured and contracting work dried up, Melinder launched a personal chef and catering service in September 2001.

Known as Allyson's Happy Everything Catering, the business drew on her experience at the Atlas deli. She operated from home and various rented spaces until early this year.

That's when she and her father began seriously discussing the prospect of combining the catering service with a deli that would offer the tenderloins. She pared the name to Happy Everything.

Melinder financed startup costs of roughly $25,000 with personal savings and credit cards. She already had acquired much of the kitchen equipment during her time as a caterer.

She thinks she can top $200,000 in annual revenue during her first year of business, but admitted the challenge of starting a company can take a physical and mental toll. Melinder hopes to hire two or three employees to lighten the load.

Now, she gets help from her dad and her husband, Clay, who also sells insurance with his father at the east-side M&M Agency.

The deli at Rangeline Road and 116th Street offers traditional meats and cheeses and may expand its menu to include more unusual fare that might have been available at Atlas. Caviar, for instance, might be in the offing.

The catering service mixes a variety of hot and cold courses with desserts, breads and appetizers. Happy Everything caters events such as graduation parties, bridal showers, funerals, and company meetings, picnics and parties.

Business so far has been so robust that Melinder scaled back the deli's operations from seven days to five to keep pace with catering orders. The store is closed on Sundays and Mondays. The cot in her office is evident of the long hours and the occasional need for a nap.

"She works a lot of hours and she puts out a work of art," Mike Davis said. "She got that from her mother."

Happy Everything is a generic term Melinder and her mother used as a way to say good-bye. Melinder compared the expression to "have a nice day." Upon scouting her current location, which previously housed a Sweet Tomato Italian Kitchen, Melinder spotted the smiley face synonymous with "have a nice day" hanging from a doorknob.

She took that as a sign from her mother that the site would be the right choice.

Melinder is intent on continuing another tradition, besides the tenderloins. She retrieved the toy treasure chest and opened it to reveal children's stickers and trinkets inside.
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