New scholarship at Catawba College honors Southern Lunch owners

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 7, 2013

SALISBURY — A new scholarship at Catawba College has been established to honor and to publically say “thank you,” to the owners of Lexington’s 88-year-old Southern Lunch.
Employees and children of employees at Southern Lunch will be given preference for the Fred Lohr and Shirley Lohr Family Scholarship. Catawba alumnus Barry Leonard ’65 and wife Clara of Lexington established the scholarship to pay tribute to the family and the business that gave them both jobs and Barry a chance to attend college while working there.
Fred Lohr, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, hired Barry Leonard in 1956 while Barry was a freshman at Lexington High School. “Fred would let me have Friday nights off during football season, but he made me work on Saturdays because he wanted to hear about the game,” Barry recalled, citing the kindness and generosity of Fred Lohr and his late wife, Shirley.
“That’s one thing my daddy always did. Any athlete who wanted to work, he supported them,” explained Herb Lohr, Fred’s son and grandson and namesake of Southern Lunch founder, Herbert Lohr.
Barry’s wife, Clara, also worked as a waitress at Southern Lunch after the two were married and while Barry attended Catawba. She, too, recalls the kindness of the Lohr family and remembers receiving birthday cards from Shirley Lohr.
The $35 a week salary that Barry made working at Southern Lunch put him through school at Catawba. Barry is now retired from the CPA firm he established and ran for 30 years in Greensboro, and he and Clara live on a farm in their hometown of Lexington. To them, the scholarship is a tangible way to pay it forward, like Fred Lohr did, and like his son, Herb, continues to do in the family restaurant business.
“We were always a family business — we’re not just three generations of owners, but three generations of employees and customers,” Herb Lohr said. “Dad was always a people person and the face of the business, and he taught us that you have to appreciate your help and your customers. He is a real good man and highly respected in this community. He has a heart of gold and was always kind and a giver.
“When my dad learned about the scholarship that the Leonards had established in his honor at Catawba, he joked and said of Barry, ‘I taught him everything he knows.’ He was pleased and my mom would have been just as proud. I know we have some employees’ children who will be interested in this scholarship,” Herb explained.
Barry concurred that Fred Lohr, indeed, taught him some of the most important things that he knows. “He taught me a lot about ethics and he helped raise me. I had ethics instilled in me through my first job at Southern Lunch and at Catawba, and acting ethically has always served me well.”
While the textile mills have closed and the furniture manufacturing business and the Railway Express, both of which used to be down the street from Southern Lunch, have not survived, Southern Lunch still operates thanks to Herb Lohr’s efforts to change with the times and “to adapt to a different kind of clientele.”
In 1984, Herb expanded his food offerings to a full menu, keeping fresh desserts and the “breadburger” that his father Fred introduced, along with country style steak, stew beef and chicken and dumplings. In recent years, he has added seafood options that have proven popular with customers.
The original Southern Lunch only seated 35 people with its 15 barstools and five booths. Herb and Barry share stories about how customers would line up two deep behind those seated on the barstools to wait for their turn at lunch. Now, since the restaurant is located across the street from its original location and has expanded over the years, it can accommodate 140 people.
While things have changed in the 88 years of Southern Lunch, the tradition of good food, good people and strong ethics is still intact and will be as long as a Lohr is running the place. Herb recalled a 2007 fire at the business that shut him down for 15 months, putting him and his 30 employees out of work.
“We almost didn’t come back,” he said, “but when we did reopen, every single employee came back to work except one who passed away while we were closed.
“I think you have to run things old school,” Herb said. The Lohr family, their employees and their customers tend to agree.
Several members of Fred Lohr’s family have Catawba connections. Fred’s son, Herb ’81, attended Catawba and played baseball for a year, and his daughter, Freddie Lohr Fulbright ’77, graduated from Catawba and enjoyed a long career teaching in the Davidson County Schools until her retirement.