The stories, secrets and song behind the Shelby Café
There are two certainties in life: death and taxes. But when he wrote that iconic statement, Benjamin Franklin hadn’t been to the Shelby Café.
For 100 years, hungry customers have relied on Shelby’s mainstay to serve home-cooked meals. Every morning there will be eggs and liver porridge. On Monday, the salmon patties will be the specialty, and on Thursday, you know the meatloaf will be there for you.
“People expect this,” said Billie Rizkallah, who started working at the Shelby Café when she was 16 and a student at Shelby High School.
While she left the cafe for another job in the food industry from 1982 to 1996, she returned and later met her current husband who now also owns the restaurant.
Small stain on the big screen
The staff at Shelby Café stick to what works. Every evening they dip the pintos to serve them the next day and they call their regulars by name.
But the Shelby staple has welcomed unexpected guests over the years.
Rizkallah’s daughter, Shannon Froehlich, pieced together the restaurant’s history along with notable customers and milestones.
In addition to local Senator Ted Alexander and Speaker of the House Tim Moore, some household names that have darkened the restaurant’s doorway include Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Earl Owensby, Jimmy Wayne and Jeff Gordon.
The restaurant has been featured in “Our State” magazine, TV shows such as “Taste of America” with Mark DeCarlo, “Bizarre Foods” with Andrew Zimmern, “Tarheel Travelers” with Scott Mason, and “Life in the Carolinas” by Carl White.
The cafe made its big screen debut in 1970 with “Blood Done Sign My Name.”
Rizkallah recalls the not-so-magical part of the experience. She recalls the staff making about 40 plates that all had to be identical for filming and reshoots of a scene.
“An institution for our community”
As mentioned, Senator Alexander is a fan of Shelby Café.
He even made an appearance on the episode of “Taste of America” when the restaurant held a contest.
Then Shelby Mayor Alexander took on former Mayor Les Roark to come up with a winning recipe that included the gritty local compound, liver porridge.
The dishes were concocted in the cafe, and Alexander won.
His recipe for liver, egg and cheese porridge on pita bread with mayonnaise has definitely secured a spot on the menu as the Mayor’s Special.
“It seemed like a good combination,” says Alexander now almost 20 years later.
Alexander first entered the cafe when he was taken out to eat after being hired as manager of the Uptown Shelby Association in 1988. He says he has been coming back ever since.
The senator said he thinks it’s the back-to-basics approach to business that has led to continued success.
“It’s home cooking. They have great service, and they know you and you know them,” he said. “We have a lot of great restaurant choices all over Cleveland County, but very few of them reach 100 years old…I think it’s kind of an institution for our community.”
Decades of subtle changes
Over the years, Shelby Café has gone through small changes.
Once a smaller version of itself with a row of booths and a food counter, it expanded three decades ago when the then owners bought Shelby News Stand next door on South Lafayette Street.
This company’s sign still hangs on the wall inside.
The food counter eventually became a candy counter. Perhaps with some trepidation, restaurant owners have started accepting debit and credit cards.
At the time, credit at the Shelby Café meant you could pay your bill at the end of the week, and the receipt was placed in an old cigar box, Rizkallah recalls.
In 2005, Billie Rizkallah redesigned the restaurant’s tables, adorning them with old newspaper clippings that sparked customer interest and conversation.
The tables served as the centerpiece for countless breakfasts, lunches and dinners before needing to be replaced. New ones have been put in place with updated flooring that cafe owners Bryan Green and George Rizkallah have taken care of during the pandemic.
A few of these table tops now hang on the dining room walls along with other local photos.
Likes to sing
While change is inevitable, the recipes remain the same at Shelby Café.
They are not archived on paper or in electronic files. They are taught. All but one, the famous Greek dressing.
George Psilopoulas, who owned the restaurant years ago, kept the recipe secret to himself until the day he handed it over to Billie Rizkallah.
According to Rizkallah, she was given a stipulation, and she says she remembers it verbatim: “As long as I live, you cannot give this. No! As long as there’s Shelby Café, you can’t give it away.
She still has the piece of paper with the coveted recipe.
But it was the southern breakfasts and sense of community that inspired Al Dunkleman, a local musician and professor of sociology at Cleveland Community College, to write a song about the business.
In 2011, Dunkleman uploaded a video to YouTube titled, “I’ll see you at the Shelby Cafe.”
He performs a catchy melody with the group Natural Blend. Urging those listening to join the chorus, Dunkleman sings verses of “For breakfast, don’t be in a hurry, enjoy eggs, oatmeal and liver porridge.”
And he shares his joy for downtown business, singing, “This is where the downtown community comes together, it’ll put a smile on your face.”
Give people what they want
More than 50 years after he first worked part-time at the cafe, Rizkallah still comes to help, his job title not entirely clear these days.
“I do everything that someone else doesn’t. Today I am a cashier,” she said.
Long-time clients wave to her and ask how she’s doing. On a Thursday afternoon, a lady says goodbye and that she will see her at noon the next day.
It’s not uncommon for some customers to eat at least one meal every weekday at the cafe, Froehlich said.
Mother and daughter agree. What appealed to customers nearly a century ago continues to tempt the taste buds of customers today.
“You need pinto beans and potatoes. You have to do what people can afford,” Rizkallah said. “It was affordable for everyone who came.”
“And it’s comfort food,” Froehlich added.
It’s time to celebrate
In May, Shelby Café celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Rizkallah, business owners and staff are planning a celebration. The details are not yet in place, but they are hoping for a great reception.
Anyone who wants to share memories or photos of the Shelby Café over the years can drop them off at the restaurant or email Froehlich at [email protected]