RICHMOND, Va. – In conversation Stuffy’s Subs shop owner Conrad “Chuck” Lewane frequently pairs names with sandwich preferences.
“Eric, yep, great photographer, loves the Chef’s Garden.”
“Is this the Alix that lived in Shockoe and ordered turkey on sprouts?” he asked, after I introduced myself .
I point this trait out to him and he shares a story about a returning customer, who he asked – to her surprise — “Great Garden, wheat pita, right?”
She replied “yes” and then pointed out – to his surprise –that eleven years had passed since her last visit.
Twenty-six years after first taking the job assembling sandwiches, Lewane knows a lot about people, food and Richmond. Lewane, who majored in English at VCU, started work at Stuffy’s in 1988 and took over as owner of the Harrison Street shop in 1992.
The door to that location, which first opened in 1976, just shuttered.
The Village Café may not be where it always was, but it maintains the same flavor, and is one of the few landmarks to have survived half a century of changing Fan landscape, which is part of an evolution attributed to VCU.
“Over the last five years [at least], within a five-minute walk of Stuffy’s, there are now 42 restaurants,” Lewane said. “Expand that to an eight-minute walk and it’s even more.”
“All the new buildings that VCU builds have retail downstairs, and they sign contracts with national chains,” Lewane said, explaining that VCU offers meal plans which allow money to be spent at shops that are located in VCU buildings.
He said that VCU business services department won’t work with local shops so that students can use their meal plans.
“It amazes me what people do to stay open,” Lewane said in reference to a couple working 70-hours a week to keep their restaurant open.
He said for awhile some of his employees were making bigger checks than he was writing for himself.
His wife Gillian, who he first hired to work at the shop in 1995, had helped him manage the store for a while but was forced to take another job to help cover bills.
Then Gillian had a baby boy, on April 17, 2014. Lewane said he thought about shutting down the businesses and getting a new job to pay the bills.
Lewane has no shred of bitterness about the changes made in the city, and he certainly acknowledges he could have tried different approaches.
He’s happy to see changes in the city and feels like the development has “enhanced our city…enhanced its reputation. “
He has nothing but kind words for VCU Police, and the safety of the area.
“Students used to get mugged every night,” Lewane said, comparing how the occasional mugging now is big news.
The catering side of businesses kept his store afloat this long and even helped him become what he considers a good cook.
“And then this opportunity to keep making beautiful, happy sandwiches came up,” Lewane said. The Libbie Avenue location was for sale, and he secured a loan from a Fredericksburg bank.
So the delicious subs, and distinct menu items offered only by this famous shop, will soon be found at the Libbie location, which conveniently offers more parking than the Harrison Street location.
Lewane’s team will join the one already in place at Libbie, and a team of four will jumpstart the delivery service.
City residents can still get their favorite subs via delivery, which will include delivery within a five-mile radius.
The cut-off for same- day delivery will be Belvidere, but anyone on the VCU Medical Campus or anywhere downtown just needs to place an order a day ahead of time for delivery.
Lewane’s excited to test the waters of this new zipcode, saying that the “WestHampton area is pretty stable.”
He gauged that he hired about 400 people since taking over as owner in 1992. Many of them became friends, some of the associates married, and several still work for him.
He said he was in love with his wife Gillian when she worked for him in 1995. He wrote her numerous love letters, but she encouraged him to find love elsewhere, because he was too good a friend.
She moved on after college, but when they met again in 2005 she showed him those old letters. Time passed, love took hold, and they married in 2007.
“It’s all been worth it for that very thing,” Lewane said.
The new retail place that took over the lease on Harrison will be a shish-kabob joint, he said.
The 324 Libbie Avenue location is open Monday thru Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday.