For more than 70 years, George Alexas ran Shorty’s Lunch, a West Chestnut Street hot dog shop that became the undisputed hometown favorite of generations of Washingtonians.
Alexas, 81, who died Thursday of cancer, began working in the business at age 11. He was remembered by his downtown business neighbors as a reserved but witty man who was a good businessman.
Mark Hull, who has owned Mark’s Shoe Repair on Chestnut Street for 13 years, said he regarded Alexas as an “uncle,” and praised Alexas for his generosity.
“He was a great guy,” Hull said Friday during a break from repairing shoes in the shop he began renting from Alexas several years ago.
“If somebody was hungry, he wouldn’t turn them down, he’d give them something to eat,” Hull said.
Both Hull and Rich Sonson, who owns Rich’s Barber Shop directly across the street from Shorty’s, recalled Alexas’ quiet wit.
“He was a very, very quiet, nice person and a very good businessman,” Sonson said. “He worked every day of his life. He did what you have to do if you own your own business.
“He had a very dry sense of humor, very ‘to the point,’” Sonson said. “If you asked him for advice, he’d give it to you, but he never meddled in anyone’s business.”
Sonson, a friend of Alexas for nearly 50 years, noted that Shorty’s was so famous for the chili used to cover its hot dogs that he would often see Alexas mailing cartons of the sauce to former Washington residents across the United States.
Shorty’s longevity and popularity as everyone’s hometown eatery has earned it a Wikipedia entry on the Internet.
In later years, Alexas turned over the daily operations of the downtown shop to his son Steve Alexas, and put his son John Alexas in charge of Shorty’s in Wolfdale.
While Alexas could be seen daily at the original shop at 34 W. Chestnut St., talking with customers, he also operated Shorty’s Lunch at the Washington Mall for 37 years, until closing it in May 2005, a decision he observed with some irony in a interview with the Observer-Reporter.
At the time, Alexas and his sons were also battling a downtown redevelopment plan that would have caused the West Chestnut Street shop, a fixture in the business district since the 1930s, to relocate.
A petition drive to keep Shorty’s in its original place, launched by Alexas’ sons, drew more than 26,000 signatures, demonstrating the Depression-era lunchroom’s high regard among its longtime customers.
A state traffic study later determined that moving the shop wouldn’t be necessary, but just before the decision, Alexas observed the generational battle he was waging on two fronts.
“There’s a whole generation of people who shop only at malls. They’re mad because the mall restaurant is closing.
“Imagine that, we’re fighting to keep our downtown shop open, and they’re mad because the mall restaurant is closing.”
Both Shorty’s locations will be closed on Sunday and Monday.