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By a quarter past four in the afternoon, there are 14 people sitting around a clutch of tables at the rear of Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria. The first official meeting of the SOS (Save Our Sholl’s) committee begins with an offering of foodtwo plates of fresh muffins, some pastries, donutswhich, in turn, sparks plenty of conversation. Sam Goldstein, his Capitals baseball hat clashing with his Southern drawl, doesn’t need anything; he finished a big lunch (liver and onions) at Sholl’s just a few hours earlier, and he’s “still stuffed to the gills.” Attorney Al Krachman also has to pass, although he’d rather not. “It’s a daily struggle,” he says, sliding the pastry plate along. “You know what I love in here?” asks Father Valentine Keveny, cutting a donut in half. “The oatmeal.” Jim McGrath can’t agree. “You know, it’s the only thing I can’t eat,” he offers. “But the liver and onions…”
McGrath, the committee chair, expects a few more stragglers to arrive later, but he figures it’s time to get down to business, so he asks the father to say a prayer. The cafeteria, which will celebrate its 71st anniversary on March 15, is in grave danger of closing, and Keveny, a chaplain at George Washington University, is, like everyone else at the meeting, a loyal customer. Earlier, as people were introducing themselves, the father announced, “I’m the one putting the fear of God into everyone”; it’s implicit that he’s referring to the cafeteria’s landlords, or anyone else who might put the place in danger. Dressed in his work clothes and speaking in an Irish brogue of the vintage that I’m sure flows from a tap in heaven, the father thanks the Lord for “the wind and the rain,” and, above all, at least for today, “this cafeteria.”
McGrath explains that Sholl’s is facing “a two-part crisis.” First, it needs a new lease, and the rent proposal that the brokers at Cushman & Wakefield have on the table would, as McGrath sees it, squeeze George Fleishell, the cafeteria’s owner and manager, to death; Fleishell currently pays $20,000 a month in rent, and the brokers want to up the rent by $1,000 a week, to about $292,000 a year.
“Secondly, we need to increase patronage,” McGrath continues. “The food’s still wonderful,” he says, but bus traffic is down around its K Street location, and Sholl’s relies heavily on tourist groups to file through its cafeteria line in search of old-school fare at old-school prices. What he calls “the fast food craze” isn’t helping matters. “Kids are addicted to the stuff,” he bites, wondering aloud how anyone could choose a Big Mac over a plate of Sholl’s baked chicken, not to mention its ever-popular pies.
On the bright side, the cafeteria has recently been crawling with reporters in search of human-interest stories. Voice of America has even stopped by. “They put the camera in so close to the liver and onions it was like they were being warmed by a microwave oven,” McGrath hollers. “Those liver and onions are going to win an Academy Award!”
Still, Sholl’s plight remains unknown to most of its customers. Passing around a leaflet that details the cafeteria’s rent troubles, its tradition of giving away food to the needy, its “countless awards,” and its stature as one of the few cafeterias of its kind left in the country, McGrath instructs committee members to take the sheet and “fax it to everyone you know.” Then he passes the gavel to the lawyer.
“Thanks, Jim,” says Krachman. The lawyer represents Sholl’s owner, Fleishell, a late arrival to the meeting, and his message is grave: The cafeteria’s lease expires on March 1, and the brokers aren’t budging on their offer. “We’ve put the numbers on the table,” he says. “In the spirit of this great establishment, the owners have taken extreme personal sacrifice. There’s just not the kind of breathing room there to accommodate that type of rent increase.”
One person who’s not present at the meeting, Brian McVey, senior managing partner at Cushman & Wakefield, insists that the offer on the table is “very competitive,” lower than the market value for the K Street address. He explains that C&W, which is negotiating the Sholl’s deal, is a real estate broker, not the building’s owner, but that “the owners would be happy to renew Sholl’s lease. We’ve never indicated anything different.”
A firm was enlisted to explore other site options, but to no avail. A restaurant like Sholl’s requires a kind of mongrel spacehuge kitchen, a long wall for the cafeteria line, room to accommodate bus trafficthat’s fast becoming extinct in the neighborhood as older buildings become either renovated or replaced altogether. Like the SOS committee members, Sholl’s regular clientele is largely elderly. Some regulars are homeless. Fleishell can’t reasonably be expected to renovate some new digs and still offer his customers meatloaf for under $2. Someone on the other side of the room asks if the worst-case scenario is for Sholl’s to be run out of business by March 31. Krachman, in so many words, says yes. “We need leverage.”
The room erupts with ideas. The one that everyone seems to like best is a Sholl’s anniversary party, a feel-good publicity stunt. McGrath lays it out: “A turkey dinner, from soup to nuts, for $4.95. People will come in and experience what a great moderately priced meal really is.” Celebrities could be invited. SOS member Martha Taylor thinks that the mayor’s mother would love it, if only someone had the pull to get her involved. The committee, McGrath suggests, needs to add more influential members.
Taylor offers to call her councilmember. The mayor’s name is batted around, but John Graves, a retired lobbyist and a Sholl’s customer since ’47and the committee’s resident realistdoesn’t think political help is the way to go. He wants to know who owns the building. Fleishell can’t even answer that, citing something about an impenetrable layer of portfolio managers and a vague notion that the building was recently bought by a mysterious Japanese real estate concern (McVey says he doesn’t even know specifically who owns the building, only that it’s a foreign partnership). To which Graves replies, “Great.”
McGrath brightens at the mention of the staff’s ethnic makeup: “There’s a lever! The employee profile. [George] must have every Hispanic country in the Western Hemisphere represented.” Fleishell nods. Then Keveny thinks of something. He whispers in my ear, “What about the double amputee from Vietnam?” I ask McGrath the same question. He nods.
“Our distinguished guest from the City Paper””distinguished” is how he refers to everyone present”just reminded me about Senator Cleland. George, why don’t you tell everyone about the senator.” Turns out that Georgia Democrat Max Cleland, who lost both legs in Vietnam, has been coming to Sholl’s for years, starting back when it had more than one location; he used to come into the shop on Connecticut Avenue all the time. Fleishell explains that the senator stopped in frequently over the course of the recent impeachment hearings. “We didn’t talk about politics,” he says. “He comes here to enjoy his meals.” When the hearings were over, Cleland sent Fleishell flowers with a note that read, “Thank you for being my friend.” As he says this, Fleishell, who’s not prone to outspokenness, much less overstatement, isn’t looking at anyone. But he looks moved.
It’s never mentioned whether the senator could or would do anything to save Sholl’s, but the story is enough to brighten the committee’s mood considerably. The meeting’s adjourned. It’s dinner time, and Fleishell offers to treat everyone present to a free meal: “We’ve got liver and onions.”
Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria, 1990 K St. NW, (202) 296-3065.Brett Anderson
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