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It Was More Than a Bakery

Firehook acquires Shuman's.

After 125 years, an Alexandria institution has been consumed by progress. Shuman's bakery is the eighth addition to the ever expanding empire of Firehook.

At 6 p.m. on March 31, the formal transition occurred from Lonnie and Teddy Marchant to Pierre Abushacra. After 39 years at its present location, 430 South Washington Street, and another 86 years at two locations on King Street, Alexandria's pastry and coffee soapbox bastion of conservative Republicanism has transitioned to the future.

Could that be an omen or, more importantly to its devoted loyal customers, has it even really happened?

To be sure, ownership of the business, not the land, has changed hands. But many of the products, the staff and the fabled main table, to the immediate left, which seems to be a contradiction in terms, of the main entrance, remain alive and well.

"I hated to get out of the business. But none of the family was interested in taking over," Lonnie Marchant confided. "We wanted to retire and do things we've never been able to do while we were tied to this business."

Marchant came into the business as suddenly as he has departed. Uncle Irvin was operating the bakery in 1965 when he decided it was time for new blood, according to Marchant. At that time it was located at 516 King Street, the site of the present Alexandria Court House.

"I lived in Illinois and operated a Clark Oil service station. I knew nothing about the bakery business. Uncle Irvin called and asked if I would be interested in taking over," Marchant revealed. "So I came to Alexandria. We talked and I decided I would join the bakery.

"I went back to Illinois to sell the service station. That was on a Sunday. On Monday Uncle Irvin had an cerebral attack and died that Friday. For me, it was on-the-job-training," Marchant said.

From 1903 to 1970, the bakery was located at 516 King Street. Prior to that it was at 430 King Street. "I do know that when I came here the side of our delivery truck advertised "Shuman's Since 1876," Marchant said.

WHAT PROMPTED the Marchants to sell was best summed up by Lonnie. "I couldn't get a week or two away at a time. Maybe a long weekend but no long stretches. Now we hope to be able to take some trips."

Holidays were the most demanding. "Easter is always a big holiday. We got to the bakery at 4 a.m. and didn't leave until 7 p.m. It was the same for Christmas. When I finally got to spend time with the family on the holiday itself I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I was so tired," Teddy revealed.

Teddy Marchant is also a Realtor with Coldwell Banker. "I intend to keep doing that, plus travel a little and play some golf," she acknowledged.

Unfortunately, this first Easter without the 15-hour demand has been overshadowed by the death of Teddy's mother. After undergoing a spinal operation in an Illinois hospital she suffered complications and died on Sunday, April 4, at the age of 86, according to Lonnie.

Bright and early on April 1, Shuman's became the latest addition to the Firehook family which opened its first neighborhood bakery in 1992 on the site of the now defunct "Pineapple," 106 North Lee Street. Since then they have opened six stores in the District of Columbia and moved the Lee Street location to 105 South Union Street. Their primary production center is 214 North Fayette Street.

"We put out feelers and discovered Firehook might be interested," Marchant revealed.

"The more I learned about Shuman's, the more I realized it was a good fit," Abushacra said.

They have agreed upon an eight year lease with an option to buy or a seven year lease extension, according to Marchant. Signature products remain under Marchant's review.

"We are really interested in maintaining a neighborhood establishment. We plan to maintain the items that are Shuman's signatures and that customers expect," Abushacra promised. Some of those are Shuman's world famous jelly cake and their individually made Parker House rolls, a favorite for family holiday feasts.

"Our primary aim is to please existing customers and attract new ones," Abushacra assured. "We definitely want to maintain the same feel. I want customers to walk in with a smile on their face rather than a question mark."

PART OF THAT feel is that Shuman's has been a gathering place for Alexandria politicos, particularly those of the conservative Republican persuasion. As Steve Novinger, a 30-year customer put it, "Everybody says the big table is the unofficial Republican headquarters. Liberals and Democrats sit there at their own risk."

One of the most famous to hold court there daily was Nick Colasanto. A former Alexandria City Manager and member of City Council, he was also known as "marrying Nick" for all the weddings he performed in his Duke Street office.

"I graduated from law school in 1972 and opened my office with Nick. He got me involved with Shuman's and I've been going there ever since," said George P. Doss, Jr., who now has his offices over Timberman's Drug Store on North Washington Street. "If you had a problem that needed solving you'd find Nick at that table in Shuman's."

"Since I started having breakfast there in 1972, I've made a lot of friends and have gotten a lot of business. It's more like a family. The congregates at that first table have contributed a lot to solving the city's problems," Doss said.

Steve Novinger, who lives in Montibello, has been going to Shuman's since 1968, when he moved to Alexandria and Shuman's was on King Street. "You can tell who's already there by the cars on the lot. We know each other's cars. A sad part of Lonnie's and Teddy's job has been going to all the funerals of the regulars as we age," he stated.

"It's always felt like family. I can't start my day without going to Shuman's for coffee. I limit my intake of pastry to the weekend," Novinger assured.

That coffee is one of the changes, according to Abushacra. "We intend to update the coffee menu to provide more flavored drinks. We have a specific blend that is roasted locally and delivered to us fresh daily," he explained.

FIREHOOK WILL also be introducing, "Our own bread products such as sourdough, European ryes an olive as well as cookies, brownies, layer bars, coffee cakes and pound cakes," according to Abushacra. But they will be keeping the existing staff while integrating their own personnel. "Our staff really takes ownership of our stores," he said.

Ralph Payne, 88, has been visiting Shuman's since he was 10 years old. "I first went there to get ice cream. When it was located on King Street everyone would meet there to discuss the city's problems, even Council and the mayor," he recalled. "You could talk about anything."

Payne still shows up everyday at 4 p.m. And those seated around the big table, immediately to the left of the front door, still talk about everything. Everything Republican that is. "Jim Carvelle, who has his office near by, comes in regularly but doesn't sit at that table," according to the regulars.

"Willard Scott loved Shuman's birthday cake. He came to get it every year. Sometimes he'd even do his weather forecast [for NBC TV] from the parking lot outside," Doss remembered.

"I knew it was inevitable that Lonnie and Teddy would want to retire someday. But like old age you don't want to think about it. When it happened it was like a splash of cold water in the face," Doss lamented.

He was among the host of regulars gathered around the tables and at the counter in the early evening of March 31. It was, in a sense a community wake — good cheer and tall tales muffling latent sorrow.

In their goodbye letter to customers, Teddy and Lonnie admitted, "The very thought of ending a family business that has endured for over 125 years is heart wrenching!" But, they concluded, "The result of this endeavor will provide a happy ending as well as a happy beginning for everyone involved."