Everyone in town has heard of it.
Most people have been there.
Many make it a regular destination.
Over the years, thousands of birthday get togethers, bachelor (and bachelorette) parties, anniversary celebrations, job promotion soirees and first dates have been held in those rooms. People have met best friends, spouses and future business partners among the throngs.
And there, in the center of it all, he sits. Or stands. Or helps the staff to keep things running smoothly, quick to fix a problem or buy a round for friends.
Actually, the entire room is filled with friends.
For years, Eddie Sholar, who opened the iconic Alton mainstay Fast Eddie’s Bon Air in 1981, welcomed Alton and surrounding communities through his doors while offering ice cold beer or one of his famous hamburgers. Even more, he offered a place to feel at home, find some new friends, or dance the night away.
He also helped introduce Alton to other cities, other states, even other countries. Mention Alton to an out of towner, and what is their response, more often than not? “Oh, that’s the home of Fast Eddie’s!”
So many people have grown accustomed to hearing his name batted about, but who was the man behind the legend? Son, father, husband, friend…too many times, it isn’t until someone is gone that we think back on the impact they have on the lives around them.
The story of Fast Eddie is better told by those who knew him best:
Eddie Sholar was born at Scott Air Force Base to Norma and Dexter Sholar on Aug. 16, 1953.
The following year, the Illinois Bell employee and the stay-at-home mom moved their growing family to Dooley Drive in Alton. In addition to Eddie and older brother Mike, the couple also had Richard, John, Kathy, Sandy and Rhonda.
In 1959, the family moved again, this time to Central Avenue in Alton. This was a huge and resounding factor in Eddie’s life. The home at 1117 Central was caddy-corner from Pearl Market, a busy and respected grocery store owned by Pete Schwegel Sr. Eddie began working at Pearl Market at the age of 7, taking care of the soda bottles in the “bottle shed.” He also followed the Schwegel boys everywhere, doing any jobs they assigned.
It was then a relationship with Bud Schwegel began that lasted a lifetime.
Eddie attended St. Mary’s grade school, then Central Junior High, Marquette Catholic High School and Alton High School, where he graduated. At around the age of 14, Eddie lied about his age in order to get a job at Kwik Chic at the corner of Royal and Central Streets.
These two jobs, which he worked simultaneously, were perfect for Eddie; he could walk to and from work and not bother his parents for transportation.
At the age of 15, the sophomore met Sarah Farley, a co-worker at Kwik Chic. Sunday afternoons were spent working the “split shift” at Pearl Market, stocking the inventory from the back room onto the main floor. Also, the friendship deepened between Eddie and Pete Sr., who also worked those Sunday afternoons, spending his time telling Eddie stories and teasing the boy and his new girlfriend.
To solve a growing transportation problem, Eddie would take Pete home at the end of his shift, and Pete would allow him to keep the car until he picked Pete up for work the next day.
The 1970s and 1980s could be summed up in three words-busy, busy and busy. Eddie’s brother-in-law, Tom Hoechst, was the first to coin the nickname “Fast Eddie,” as “everything is done fast in Eddie’s world!”
In 1971, Eddie and Sarah were married, and their first child, Amy, was born in December of that year. The next year, at the age of 19, Eddie opened “Fast Eddie’s Chicken” in the location of the recently closed Kwik Chic, while still working as a meat cutter at Pearl Market. While Amy played in a playpen in the back room, Eddie would work there during his lunch hour and then come back and work after finishing his shift at Pearl Market, while Sarah operated the restaurant during the day.
“Little Eddie” was born in 1973, followed by Maggie in 1975. In 1976, Eddie opened the Franklin House Inn, a restaurant on State Street that catered to downtown Alton’s busy lunch crowd. The Franklin House Pub opened next door.
Another Fast Eddie’s chicken location in North Alton opened and was owned by Eddie and Pete Schwegel Jr.
Fast Eddie’s Chicken continued to grow, and in 1979, his mother Norma, who had helped out with the restaurant through the years, purchased the business from Eddie to free him up for new adventures. He had purchased the former Block’s Restaurant at 7th and Central Streets, and Fast Eddie’s Chicken settled into its new home.
Meanwhile, the pub took a different turn. A liquor license opened the door to later hours, which also meant more food choices and an expanding crowd. Next came Fast Eddie’s Steakhouse and Saloon on the corner of State Street and Broadway.
During all of these “growing years,” one thing remained steadfast-they were family businesses, with siblings, kids and friends on the payroll. Quality meat for the restaurants was still being purchased from old friend Bud Schwegel.
Another important friendship to develop was with Pete Ervin, who was also friends with Lotteo Balaco. Ervin was known to Eddie’s kids as “Uncle Pete” and is still a close family friend. Pete and Lotteo owned Pete’s Lounge, and Eddie later purchased that business and then sold it to his brother Mike (“Elwood”), who still owns the bar and also still works at the Bon Air to this day.
As the decades progressed, the Franklin House was sold to Mark Springman (current owner of Cat Daddy’s), and the steakhouse was sold to John McManus. The former location of Robbie’s (a popular restaurant on Elm Street), the Wayside Inn, became Eddie’s next venture. Sarah waited tables while Eddie did the kitchen prep and bar work. This became a very busy spot.
While the parents worked, the children remained close by, watching television, doing homework, and playing in the upstairs apartment.
It was during this era that Pete Ervin hooked Eddie up with Lotteo regarding the purchase of the Bon Air. In 1981, the deal was completed, and a fourth child, Katie was born that same year. During a vacation to Las Vegas, Eddie and Sarah visited a casino with a train caboose serving as a food bar. The couple spent seven hours watching the hectic food distribution process. Eddie’s mind was clicking, and the idea for the food bar at Fast Eddie’s Bon Air was born.
The rental rooms above the tavern and in the rear of the bar were eliminated, as were the “wall of beer” and the sale of cigarette cartons. Cold beer, great food served cheap, lottery tickets and good music helped establish Fast Eddie’s as a destination.
During this time, Eddie and Sarah were divorced. A fifth child, Danielle, was born to Eddie and Brenda LaPlante in 1983.
The bar continues to take off in the next few years. Walls are knocked down and the back bar is established. Many young people are hired (including all five kids). For “Sholar kids,” work began about the ages of 9-11. While many children who help with family businesses are shown “special privilege,” it was the opposite with Eddie’s kids, and they learned the value of hard work along with invaluable lessons.
The employees worked hard, and were paid well and treated fairly. When a winning lottery ticket was sold at the Bon Air, Eddie took his share of the prize and used much of the proceeds on trips for his employees, as well as individual cash gifts.
During this period, Eddie was also married to Tina Siemer. Although they were later divorced, they remained good friends for the remainder of his life.
Throughout his years of ownership at the Bon Air, a strong business relationship developed with a lifelong friend, local attorney Cliff Emons. His expertise and advice were important tools in the success of the tavern. That relationship continues with Eddie Jr.
In late 2008, Eddie Jr. purchased the Bon Air from his father. Shortly before this time, the state’s smoking ban took effect, and to solve the dilemma, Eddie Jr. bought the street and built an outdoor patio to accommodate his smoking customers.
The aspect of marketing has been most important in the second era of the Bon Air. Eddie Sr. always gave Eddie Jr. most of the credit, including the younger Eddie’s friendship with former Major League Baseball player and radio broadcaster Mike Shannon. The vast radio and television advertising are well-known throughout the area, and the Bon Air has been featured in Maxim Magazine, many local publications, and celebrity chef Alton Brown’s book, “Feasting on Asphalt.”
All five children are still in town today. In addition to Eddie, Jr., Amy is an attorney in private practice, Maggie owns Maggie-Do’s hair salon, Katie works with her Aunt Kathy at Fast Eddie’s Fried Chicken, and Danielle is the food bar manager at the Bon Air.
Throughout the Bon Air, you can see photos of the events, fun times and special people in Eddie Sholar’s life. Beyond the business, his personal passions were riding his bike and flying. The skilled pilot owned planes and was truly happy in the air.
Alton has reaped many benefits from Eddie’s hard work. Hundreds of people have been employed, many of whom wrote touching letters to the Sholar family upon Eddie’s death. Sales tax dollars brought into the area are incalculable, and he helped Alton’s introduction to the St. Louis area as well as the rest of the country. In addition, many families and children who needed help received it from Eddie over the years.
The legacy is a simple one. Work very, very hard, keep your family and friends close, treat people with kindness and be generous to those less fortunate.
So here is a toast to you, Eddie.