One salad bar is too large, another too small. Restaurant relics are pushed aside as the hunt continues for the right fit. Finally, he finds one that might work. Owner Joe Gusti asks Uncle Dave if he needs a double sneeze guard, if it's an island salad bar, or does he need one that sits neatly alongside the wall?
Uncle Dave seems the acme of politeness. He even offers the three people around him a cigarette before he lights up.
Uncle Dave and Gusti have worked together a number of times over the years. The whole transaction seems as comfortable as an old leather shoe. They even go over a private joke that makes Uncle Dave laugh self-consciously. Then he seems a bit nervous.
Uncle Dave, what's your last name?
Gently, he refuses. "Just Uncle Dave," he says to this reporter with a slight smile, and begins looking into procuring a three-compartment sink. That's actually why he made the trip down to Richmond.
Downstairs, Gusti Restaurant Equipment looks just like an ordinary company. New equipment and cleaned-up used pieces sit on the shelves. Wander into the back and you'll find the usual industrial features: a loading dock and a workshop where workers refurbish old equipment into low-cost hand-me-downs for restaurateurs. Gusti, amid the ruins of The Greek Circus and a Rock-Ola Café, lords over an old-school warehouse that serves mom-and-pop establishments with good service, an eye for the deal and a slight hint of chaos as he takes apart old eateries, church kitchens, legion halls heck, even cafeteria equipment from Armstrong High School and puts it all back into circulation.
He proudly shows off an old eight-burner stove he took out of the First African Baptist Church in 1993.
"It was 1911," Gusti says, describing the restored museum-piece stove. "They were using it, and we were redoing the whole kitchen. But because it wouldn't pass the code for the time, they had to get rid of it.
"After we redid it, a lot of people from the congregation came out here with camcorders and cameras and everything," Gusti recalls.
But that's a showpiece. Gusti turned down $8,000 for the stove and uses it as an example of his company's refurbishing skills.
A restoration job for a stove, which includes stripping the piece down to its frame and thoroughly cleaning every part, takes up to three to five working days.
"It's good for the new restaurants and the people who are opening on a budget. I tell all my customers I hope it's going to last twenty, thirty years. If it lasts two or three years, then it served its purpose. It's got 'em in the door. They should have made some money, and if it breaks, don't waste money fixing it. You should be in a position to buy something a little newer," Gusti says.
That philosophy has garnered a million transactions since Gusti entered the business in 1984. It's a delicate line to walk: Gusti often must temper the buyers' high hopes with the seller's reality.
"I've seen chefs, certified chefs, come in and buy equipment, and they'll go to a location, a poor location, and can't make it. And I've seen people that don't even know how to boil water, and get into a good location and make it," Gusti says. "It's really, really fascinating."
The cycle leaves Gusti to become well-acquainted with his pieces. Some have traveled in and out of his shop two or three times.
"I just sold those about eight months ago," he says, pointing to some tables that were earmarked for a Shockoe Bottom restaurant, "and just had to go and buy it back.
Place never opened.
"We have certain items that move more quickly than others. Refrigerators, stoves, grills and all," Gusti says. "Then you'll get a piece of oddball equipment specially made for a specific location that you end up sitting on or throwing away."
"We get so much old stuff and it gets lost in the shuffle. This old building, I've got it loaded top to bottom. I got old Coke boxes upstairs," Gusti says. "This old stove is probably twenty-plus years of age."
Where did it come from?
"Good Lord, I don't know," he says with a shrug.
But such things make The Graveyard what it is. Gusti says moviemakers rent out a lot of his equipment to prepare food and to use as props. Productions such as HBO's "Iron Jawed Angels" and "John Adams" used pieces.
"There's been a bunch of them.
Some of them come in with 2,400-foot trucks and rent a bunch of it and use it for the movie shoots and all," he says. "We have that happen all the time."
Gusti even makes housecalls. Two weeks ago, Gusti went to the Robin Inn, working in the kitchen. It's part of a long relationship between him and the Loupassi family. Manuel Loupassi, original owner of the eatery, owns Gusti's building. Niki Loupassi, the inn's current owner, is a dedicated customer.
"He's got all kinds of stuff, new stuff," she says. "Stuff like you'd see in a diner metal tables and some retro-looking pieces."
But it's the nuts and bolts the service that keep her coming back.
"Every time I call him, if it's a piece of equipment I bought from him, they bring someone by," she says. "That's the good thing about buying from him. You're going to get the service." S
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