If you’ve never lived in Washington, you’ve never heard of Sholl’s Cafeteria, which existed from 1928 until 2001. Sholl’s last owner, George A. Fleishell, died last month, which gives us a chance to explain why Fleishell and his uncle, founder Evan Sholl, were two great social entrepreneurs.
Sholl’s was best known for providing old-fashioned food at low, low prices. It was one of the few places in the Washington area where you could have real spoon bread. Its entrees were always tasty, and the chain was renowned for its pies. Whenever they brought in salmon, it was a special night, because you could get one of the largest and tastiest pieces of fish one would ever see, for six dollars.
As a result, lots of people ate at Sholl’s, including Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. There is a story I heard, that I do not know is true but sounds plausible to me. The story has it that sometime in the 1960s Washington Star reporter John Sherwood interviewed billionaire H. L. Hunt. “Mr. Hunt,” Sherwood said, “I’d like to take you to lunch. It’s on the Star. Where would you like to go?
“But Mr. Hunt, you’re a billionaire. You can eat any place you want. Now where would you like to go?”
“Son, how do you think I made that billion?”
But more important than pleasing the rich was the way Sholl’s served the poor. One way was that it gave people with low incomes someplace to go and see their friends. Brett Anderson, writing in the Washington City Paper in 1997, said that the daily presence of seniors chatting with their friends gave Sholl’s “its community-bingo-night charm.” George Fleishell told Anderson that for seniors, “their social life is here. They meet their friends here, and they sit around here for several hours shooting the breeze.”
But Evan Sholl and George Fleishell served the poor by, well, actually serving the poor. If you were hard up and penniless and needed a hot meal, Sholl’s would provide one, no questions asked. We will never know how many poor people Sholl’s fed because they didn’t keep records. They just did their duty.
Sholl and Fleishell didn’t come across their management philosophy by accident. Both men were devout Catholics. According to this entertaining article by John DeFerrari in the Streets of Washington blog (adapted from the book Historic Restaurants of Washington D.C.), Evan Sholl converted in 1949, after steady persuasion from his wife, Gertrude Fleishell. “All of a sudden, holy mackerel, tears came to my eyes,” Sholl told the Washington Post. “I started smelling roses, and I began yelling, ‘I’m going to be a Catholic!'”
After his conversion, Sholl changed his cafeteria’s policy in several ways. "RELIGION AND PATRIOTISM MAKE THIS A GREAT PLACE TO WORK”, a sign in the cafeteria line said. There were paintings of St. Francis and a photo of Pope John Paul II on the walls. Cards on the tables provided prayers for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. And after work on Fridays, prayer meetings were held—until, as John H. Fund noted in the Wall Street Journal in 2001, “the staff grew to include 17 nationalities and group meetings became awkward.”
But Sholl and Fleishell's Catholicism was also reflected in their business practices. Evan Sholl only took enough profits from his cafeterias to live on. , and routinely provided profit sharing plans for his employees. Sholl’s finances were shaky for years, but what killed the cafeteria was 9/11. Tour buses, the backbone of Sholl’s customer base, cancelled their trips to Washington and Sholl’s closed in December 2001.
I have no idea what restaurant occupies the Sholl’s space on K Street. I’m sure the successor restaurant to Sholl’s Cafeteria is exquisite, artisanal, and does nothing to help the poor or improve civil society.
Evan Sholl and George Fleishell never were given medals for their philanthropy. No lavish banquets celebrating their achievements were ever held. But they were great—and irreplaceable-- social entrepreneurs, whose enterprise provided generations of customers with excellent food at low prices and steady employment for dozens of people. Their achievements deserve our lasting respect.