Patrons of Gus’s Good Times Deli these days might ask where the Gus from the sign is.
The store’s namesake, Gus Captain, is still around for football gamedays, but he has passed on the business to co-owners Aaron Hale and Gerald Nelson.
Nelson has worked at Gus’s since the mid-1980s, and Hale has worked at the deli on Cumberland Avenue since 1993.
The story of Gus’s begins with another deli on Cumberland Avenue. Sam and Andy’s Deli set up shop from 1946 to 1996 at the location where McAlister’s Deli is now, Hale said.
Captain had family ties within Sam and Andy’s ownership, and when the building that would become Gus’s became available, his family let him know about it.
So Captain stopped driving taxicabs in Miami, Fla., and began Gus’s on March 13, 1981.
The story of how Hale got involved with the establishment is also rooted in family ties.
Gus’ son, John Captain, owns the National Fitness Center, Hale said, and Hale’s stepbrother worked at the center. Hale himself was between jobs, and he heard that Gus’s needed a delivery driver.
At the time, Hale, who grew up about 30 minutes from campus in North Knoxville, did not even know how to cook. His only related experience was working at Subway when he was 16. But now he can cook everything on the menu.
“We don’t write anything down, so it’s all memory,” Hale said. “It’s kind of hard at first. There’s no computer screens. It’s all just straight memory.”
Now Hale, 36, has cooked the signature Gus’ burgers for 17 years, and he said most people working there have worked for at least five years there.
“It’s not just some kid off the street cooking a hamburger,” he said.
The learning curve gets less steep with the hours Hale puts in.
Hale’s only off day is Sunday. He works double shifts on Friday and Saturday, bringing his total work week to about 70 hours.
But for him, working six days a week is just normal.
“I just always have,” he said. “Because everybody works a lot here.”
Hale and Nelson’s small staff features three delivery drivers and three other workers who cook and clean up. Two are part-time, and the rest work full-time.
And on gameday, the work day just keeps going.
“On a gameday, you don’t ever leave,” he said. “... It’s like an 18-hour day.”
But Gus’s, just like many other establishments on the Strip, puts a lot of stock into gameday sales to make up for the dead time of summer and Christmas.
“(There’s) just about four months a year when we don’t do any business,” he said.
Those Knoxville Utilities Board bills are high, he said, and so is rent.
The expense of operating a business on campus and the lack of parking are major drawbacks, he said.
“You got to depend on a lot of students for business, a lot of foot traffic,” he said.
So Gus’s throws everything behind football season, but even that can backfire, such as during the recent woes of the Tennessee football team.
“When the team sucks, then the business sucks, and you don’t have any control over that,” he said.
But even when the team is not doing as good and business is poorer, Gus’s still depends on gameday sales to cover the four-month drought of sales.
Moreover, Gus’s embrace of sport is what appealed to Hale in the first place.
“I like sports,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I liked working here because all the sports memorabilia and how sports-based everything is.”
Sports photos of key athletes and Tennessee legends cake the restaurant’s walls. And it is not all for show. A plethora of figures, including former Tennessee players and NFL stars Peyton Manning and Reggie White, had regular meals at Gus’s.
White had the polish-sausage sandwich with eggs. Manning’s favorite was a chicken breast sandwich and a baked potato. In fact, Manning still stops by. He got a hamburger on the day of the first UT football game in 2009, Hale said.
Even with poor outcomes, football season is still the best time of the year for business. Hale said the economy is also to blame for poor sales.
“That hurts the business late night,” he said.
But people still stop in for Gus’s famous hamburgers, the deli’s most popular dish. A cheeseburger, fries and a fountain drink costs $8.19 with tax.
One of those patrons is Rob Goodman, senior in physics, who enjoys the staple hamburger.
“It’s my favorite hamburger joint, easily the best around,” Goodman said.
Other dishes include deli sandwiches, philly cheesesteaks, fried chicken sandwiches and tuna salad sandwiches.
Hale said the biggest thing he’s taken away from working at Gus’s for 17 years is how to communicate with people.
“Some people you have to deal with in different ways,” he said.
Usually those ways include conversations about football — whether it’s about black uniforms on Halloween or UT’s recent double-overtime victory over the University of Alabama-Birmingham, there’s always a big topic of the day at Gus’s.