Joe Shankle

Joe Shankle
Virginia Vendor Shows How it's Done

From the Editor: Last September I attended the convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. At a party late one evening Joe Shankle, President of the Virginia vendors organization and a long-time affiliate leader, began telling me about a newspaper story that had recently appeared in Richmond. It was a profile of him and his wife Roberta, and, while they conceded that it had been accurate, they complained that all their efforts to explain the importance of Federation philosophy in their lives had been rigorously ignored by the reporter. I asked them to send me the story anyway. And when it came, I discovered what I had expected to: the impact of the NFB shone out in every line of the piece. The reporter could excise references to the organization, but there was no way to tell the Shankles' story without demonstrating what Federation philosophy does to inspire people to high standards, hard work, and dedicated service. The story appeared in the August 9, 1997, edition of the Richmond Times-Democrat. Here it is:

"Joe's Cafeteria" Manager Listens and Learns

He Has Been Blind Since He Was Age Sixteen

by Gary Robertson

The manager of one of the largest cafeterias in downtown Richmond, feeding as many as 1,200 people a day, never has seen any of his customers' faces. But he never forgets a voice.

"I make good use of my ears," Joe Shankle said.

Shankle, fifty-seven, has been making good use of his ears— and his senses of smell and touch and taste—to navigate through a sighted world since he started going blind after a bout of measles when he was six years old.

The measles caused cataracts on his eyes, and by the time he was eight, Shankle was headed for the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton. He lost his sight completely at sixteen.

But by then he had learned to take care of himself and had decided to pursue a career in business.

Blind people had few options in those days, Shankle said. He decided to run a snack bar, under a program that gave priority to the blind in federal buildings.

He started in Lynchburg and then moved to Richmond, where he thought the opportunities would be better.

For six years he operated a three-employee snack bar in the federal building. Twice during the 1960's he applied to manage the cafeteria. "But they didn't think [I] could do it," Shankle said.

Roberta Shankle, his wife of three decades, bristled when she remembered those days and other instances in which people slighted her husband's abilities. "Just because you're blind doesn't mean you can't think!" she declared.

Mrs. Shankle, fifty-three, is legally blind, although she can see well enough to keep the cafeteria's books and prepare menus.

After several teams of sighted managers failed to operate the cafeteria successfully, Shankle got his chance in 1972. "I had some friends in GSA [the General Services Administration] who had confidence in me. They said, `Give him a chance.'"

Shankle took the chance and ran with it.

He inherited fifteen employees from a previous manager, as well as a lot of ill will toward the cafeteria.

"They didn't like us very much," Shankle recalled with a laugh. "That first day we took in $190. Even back then I knew we wouldn't be open very long unless we had a lot more customers than that."

Shankle gradually trimmed his work force to three employees he could count on. Then he built it back up to eleven, as "Joe's Cafeteria" became a favorite with employees in the federal building at 400 N. Eighth Street as well as other downtown workers.

"Joe's Cafeteria" is not the official name. In fact, it has no official name.

"But everyone calls it Joe's. We wouldn't know what else to call it," said Richard Lee, assistant district director of the Internal Revenue Service for Virginia and West Virginia.

The IRS is the building's principal tenant, with 500 employees on board. But hundreds of other customers pour in from everywhere in the downtown area.

"We've been going through a renovation of the federal building—we call it `the renovation from hell,'" Lee quipped.

"A key strategy in that renovation was that the restaurant survive and thrive during the process.

"In this part of town Joe's Cafeteria is one of the key eating places. There's us, the [John Marshall Court Building, the Virginia Supreme Court], and the State Library. We had to keep it going."

Shankle is proud that he's been able to keep a loyal and growing customer base over a quarter-century.

"You have to keep your customers first. You have to listen to what they tell you," Shankle said.

That's why he stations himself at the cash register every day during the busy lunch hour: "I want to hear everything first-hand."

"If somebody says, `Joe, the chili didn't taste exactly right today,' I want to go taste the chili. Maybe somebody left something out or put too much of something else in."

Every once in a while a customer will notice that Shankle's cash register talks.

He had one of the first talking cash registers in the country to help him keep track of change. Now a more advanced model helps him track inventory, too.

Shankle also has a talking computer, and he's about to trade for a new, more powerful model.

"He likes gadgets," Mrs. Shankle said.

Before the days of cellular phones, IRS employee Henry Kidd remembers giving Shankle a ride home, and there was an accident right in front of them.

"Joe pulled out a telephone," Kidd recalled.

The phone linked Shankle with a ham radio operator, and in a moment or two Shankle was reporting it to an emergency operator, Kidd said.

"She never knew he was blind," Kidd said.

"He just explained everything in such detail that she probably thought he was looking at it."

Shankle revels in his independence.

He likes to give visitors to the cafeteria his "dime tour" through the dining room, kitchen, and refrigeration areas, quickly sidestepping hot stoves and rushing employees.

On certain chores, such as keeping tabs on fast-moving supply items, "I'll need a little `20-20' help," Shankle said, referring to sighted persons.

Otherwise, he says he and his wife can do just about everything there is to do, although he wouldn't want to try to whip up a full-course meal.

"I have a cook," he said with a grin.

A good sense of humor is something that Shankle said has helped keep him going and makes life fun.

Recently, for example, he borrowed his seventeen-year-old son's full-size cardboard stand-up of "Worf." That's the big, combative, out-of-this-world warrior on the TV series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"He put it in the ladies' bathroom and then turned off the lights," his wife said with an impish smile.

The first few employees in the bathroom in the morning had a shock and then a good laugh, she said.

Shankle also likes to poke fun at his blindness. He recalled the time that his mother called from her home in Southwest Virginia late at night while he was mowing the grass.

"She said, `Isn't it dark down there?' She had forgotten, I guess. I used to cut my grass a lot when it was dark. When you're blind, you can do it night or day," he said.

The Shankles also laughed about some of the myths about the blind. For example, Mrs. Shankle said some otherwise perfectly intelligent people have asked her how blind people can have children.

"The same way everybody else does," has been her reply.

And after rearing two sons and a daughter, Mrs. Shankle said she's convinced that their children grew up like any other children would: "They thought we were as dumb as most teenagers think their parents are."

Shankle believes his life has been blessed with a good wife, a good family and friends, and good customers who've helped him make a living.

Blindness, he said, "has only been an inconvenience."