George A. Fleishell, the last proprietor of Sholl’s Cafeteria, a downtown Washington institution known for homestyle cooking and low-budget prices, died Jan. 1 at his home in West Melbourne, Fla. He was 86.
The cause was cancer, said his daughter, Elaine Fleishell.
Opened in 1928 by Evan A. Sholl, a Pennsylvania farm boy, Sholl’s thrived at various locations, drawing on a broad customer base that ranged from visiting school groups, who arrived on chartered buses, to lawyers, lobbyists, business executives, street people, diplomats, and high federal officials.
The last Sholl’s — at 20th and K streets Northwest — closed in December 2001, a casualty of rising rents and, as a result of the terrorist attacks that September, an abrupt decline in tourist visitors to the nation’s capital.
George Fleishell, a nephew of the founding Sholl, worked in the family cafeteria as a child, served in the Army after World War II, then came home to spend the rest of his career helping to manage the operation. Mr. Fleishell became the majority owner after Evan Sholl died in 1983.
George Aloysius Fleishell was born in Baltimore on Dec. 29, 1927, and grew up in Washington. In 1945 he graduated from St. John’s College High School in the District.
He would join a family business that, at the peak of its operation, was running eight Sholl’s cafeterias in Washington, Northern Virginia and Baltimore. The downtown branches, the best known of which was on Connecticut Avenue, were said to serve up to 2 million customers a year.
Bankers, bureaucrats and the homeless filed by the steam tables at a rate of 10 a minute, urged on by cafeteria workers who called out, “Keep the line moving, have your money ready for the cashier, keep prices low.”
As late as 1999, the most expensive entree on the menu was $3.95, fried whiting — thin fillets of whitefish that had been dipped in batter, rolled in crumbs and deep-fried. There was pudding for 65 cents and Sholl’s signature desert, rhubarb pie, for $1.65. The pie was reputedly a favorite of Texas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, who was known to be a frugal man. He persuaded Sholl’s to share the recipe with his wife.
Mr. Fleishell raised prices with great reluctance. On some occasions he’d remove an item from the menu if the wholesale price went too high. “One of the most popular things used to be fillet of haddock at $2.95. Now it’s too expensive to handle. I’d have to charge $7,” he told the New York Times.
Evan Sholl was a religious man. His faith was reflected in his cafeteria and maintained by his nephew-successor. He sought out religious workers for his staff, Mr. Fleishell said. “There is less cursing and hollering,” he told the New York Times in 1984. On the tables were laminated plastic cards with suggested texts for preprandial prayers. Members of the clergy could eat free at Sholl’s.
Periodically in the decades before the new millennium, Sholl’s was threatened with closure. But customers united in protest, and the threatened shutdown was averted. National media organs with bureaus in Washington — including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — published stories lamenting the threatened loss of a piece of Americana.
“Preservationists unite — and while you’re at it, gather your hungry and your poor,” proclaimed an editorial in The Washington Post in 1984.
Soon after the last Sholl’s closed, Mr. Fleishell moved from Chantilly, Va., to Florida.
His first marriage, to Elaine McDonough, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Van Do Fleishell of West Melbourne; three children from his first marriage, Elaine Fleishell of Bowie, Md., Thomas Fleishell of Severna Park, Md., and Lisa Carpenter of Ridge, Md.; and a daughter from his second marriage, Ann Wiley of San Francisco.
He is also survived by three sisters, Frances Ann Phalen of St. Leonard, Md., Helen Zupnik of Gaithersburg, Md., and Dolores Vazzana of Bluffton, S.C.; a brother, John Fleishell of Sykesville, Md.; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.