On Sunday afternoon, Feb. 19, the elegant Loews Vanderbilt Hotel ballroom, favored location for many of Nashville’s highest-ticket pay parties and celebrations, instead hosted the city’s longest soup line. More than 1,200 people plunked down $15 each in exchange for a small, black Styrofoam tray to hold samples of soup ladled up from stations that lined three of the four ballroom walls for the 13th annual Soup Sunday to benefit Our Kids. Forty area restaurants, caterers and food providers went tureen-to-tureen in the awards competition—bisque vs. borscht, chicken noodle against lobster chowder, spicy gumbo duking it out with sweet berry. When the last soup was slurped, and the votes tallied, it wasn’t one of the city’s premier restaurants or high-profile chefs or prestigious caterers taking home the Golden Spoon Award, but Cardwell’s Market, a modest, family-owned deli that has been operating from the same address on Hermitage Avenue since 1948. Their winning recipe: Crazy Cajun Charlie Chowder.
“I think it must have been the tiny corn muffin we put in each cup,” muses Charles Cardwell, the oldest of the three Cardwell brothers, who bought the market from their parents Charles and Naomi in 1973. “We made 500 of them to bring along with the soup, and when we got down to about 200, we started cutting them in half.”
Or maybe, as one local foodie observed when told of Cardwell’s stunning Soup Sunday upset, “It says something about the nature of soup—it’s really best when it sticks to the basics and doesn’t get too fancied up.” The same analysis might be applied to Cardwell Market’s hand-sliced bologna sandwich, a most humble meal that has been the cornerstone of the market’s resilience and enduring popularity. It dates back to the business’s beginnings, some 58 years ago, though the Cardwells’ story goes back further than that.
Naomi’s family came to Nashville from DeKalb County in 1918; Charles Sr. moved to town from Gallatin two years later. The couple married in 1935, Charles Jr. was born at General Hospital in 1936, and the young family lived behind the May Hosiery Building at Fourth and Chestnut Street. A sister came along a year later, another brother two years after that.
During the war, Naomi worked for Vultee Aircraft and Charles Sr. was a substitute fireman, then later a Nashville police officer. In 1948, the Cardwells bought the property on Hermitage Avenue, within spitting distance of the hospital where their children were born—including the fourth that year. The family of six, plus a woman who cared for the children while Naomi worked, settled into the house already on the lot. Rather than hanging swings or putting a sandbox in the front yard, the Cardwells began digging it up to build a market. “My dad acted as general contractor, which probably explains why the floors have always sloped,” Charles Jr. says, sitting at one of the market’s tables covered in red-and-white checked oilcloth. “Back in those days, it seemed like there was a little grocery on every corner. We were in an interesting location. On this side of Hermitage Avenue, it was all white. Across the road, on the west side, it was all black families. We always had a very mixed clientele. My mother ran the store, and all the kids helped from the time that we could. The ones who were too little to help stayed in the house, and everybody kept an eye on them.”
Along with the typical grocery items, the market had a meat department. “We cut all our own meat then,” Cardwell recalls. Neighborhood business was good, leading to the first expansion—which took off the front room of the house. By 1958, the family had pulled off all the bedrooms; with the market now claiming the entire lot, they moved back to Chestnut Street.
As the area became more populous with day workers, Naomi recognized a niche that needed filling. “She started making bologna sandwiches and sold them for 15 cents apiece. When Metro bought the land across Hermitage and the lunch trade started to grow, we saw a need for more food service and added more sandwiches.”
In 1973, Naomi was ready to hang up her grocer’s apron and join her husband in retirement. There was talk of selling the market, but they were concerned about whether it would be run the way they liked and worried about the effect it might have on the neighborhood, which by then had lost all of the other small markets. The three brothers—all of whom were well into careers in other fields—approached their parents with a deal: if Naomi and Charles Sr. would sell them the market on credit, the sons would pay them a certain amount of money every month for the rest of their lives. Concurrently, each of the brothers’ wives agreed to work in the market, assuming the role their mother-in-law held for 25 years.
In 1985, the market underwent a major renovation, adding a kitchen, steam table, seating, gas pumps, hot breakfast, a meat-and-two menu, and burgers and fries; the bologna sandwich maintained its place of honor. Breakfast—a biscuit, two eggs, hash browns and a choice of meat, including fried bologna—is just $2.75. Meat and two sides with cornbread is $4.49 until the steam table shuts down around 1 p.m.; the bologna sandwich, thick-cut or slim, on white or wheat, with cheese, mustard, lettuce and tomato, has to be the city’s best lunch bargain, at $1.99. Gas is consistently about a dime a gallon cheaper than anywhere else in town.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes here through the years,” Charles says. “About every year-and-a-half, two years, our customer base turns over. We had a lot of construction workers from the Gateway Bridge for a long time, and now we’re beginning to see new crews from the demolition of General, and the Rolling Mill Hill development. They work hard and eat hearty. We like those kinds of people,” he adds with a smile.
There have been plenty of changes in the family, too. Brother Paul has retired, and two of the wives no longer work in the store. Since his first retirement didn’t quite take, Charles has served since 1993 as the Davidson County Trustee; his name appears on Metro Nashville property tax bills. Donnie still works for the Board of Education, and his wife Tina is the remaining Mrs. Cardwell at Cardwell’s Market. The cashier is Norma Bogle, who owned the legendary honky-tonk bar Dusty Roads; the first, on Woodland Street, was torn down for the Coliseum; the second, near Cardwell’s, was bulldozed for the Gateway. “She’s not had very good luck. I kidded her that I was afraid we might be next if she came to work here,” Charles says.
The brothers follow a schedule that has been in place for years, each taking a one-week shift that has them opening the market every day but Sunday at 5:30 a.m., letting in the four cooks and getting things rolling, then coming back for a two-hour shift at the end of the day. None of the brothers’ children has expressed any interest in taking over the market, and Charles believes the day is not far off when this block of Hermitage where the Cardwell family has lived and worked for more than half a century will have more value as the site of a condominium tower than as a deli.
“We’ve never really been profit-oriented here; we’ve never lived out of this business. We pay our people a salary, but not ourselves. We’ve enjoyed being a service to this community. We offer quality food, good prices, and we don’t gouge on gas. We try to treat everyone the way we would want to be treated.” And that, my friends, is no bologna.