On a dreary Monday afternoon, a customer walked into the new Blue Anchor Coffee and Bistro in downtown Warrenton with an unexpected order of 15 assorted pastries. He and a group were gathered for a funeral that day, and hoped to get a little food between services.
What he was asking for wasn’t immediately available, but Lee Gustin, known to most as Chef Lee, said he would just need 10 or 15 minutes, as he headed into the kitchen to mix the batter for 15 little skillets of chocolate-cheesecake and strawberry pastries. Baked and boxed, they were out the door a short time later.
Gustin, Blue Anchor’s co-owner and head chef, said that’s the kind of service he wants to provide for his neighbors and the community.
“I cook for you like I’m cooking for my family,” Gustin explained. “With most chefs, it’s very personal. We’re emotional wrecks.”
More than being a friendly eatery, Gustin said he wants the bistro to be an anchor for other businesses and businesspeople in the downtown Warrenton area.
The shop opened last month at the former location of Brewskies in downtown Warrenton. The well-known building has gone through significant renovations after its previous proprietors’ attempt to revive the restaurant ended late last year.
With a new vision for what that space can offer the community, Blue Anchor’s staff plans to steer it to success and good fortune.
The bistro is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s open Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. for breakfast and lunch. Brunch is served on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Much of what’s offered at Blue Anchor is familiar, but different. Gustin describes it as “comfort food with a twist.”
The coffee and soda at Blue Anchor are specialty brands from regional providers. The food takes inspiration from kitchens throughout the U.S. where Gustin has worked, especially the Northeast, where he served in the Navy. Menu items are intended to be a different taste than what eaters will find at every other restaurant.
“If you want the same fried food, if you want a burger, everybody has a burger,” Gustin commented. “If I do a burger, it won’t be a normal burger. ... It will have some toppings that will be a little different, out of your comfort zone. But once you try them, you’ll really like it.”
Lunch items at the bistro include options such as “Shellback Salad” with lemon pepper lobster, cranberries and sunflower seeds mixed in, or the “Clipper Chicken Sandwich” featuring an orange-jalapeno sauce.
The dinner menu features daily options, but also a special main course that changes every night, from regionally inspired food to professionally made versions of what a family might cook at home.
Gustin said he’s happy to meet the needs of guests with special food requirements, like vegetarian or gluten-free.
And, knowing the challenge of making food for sometimes-picky children, the chef said Blue Anchor’s “kids menu” is a simple question: “What do you like? If I have it in house, I’ll make it.”
On top of in-house food and drink service, Blue Anchor provides space for group meetings, catering, and text-to-order meals that customers can pick up.
Building Blue Anchor
For Gustin, food was an important part of life and community even as a young child. He grew up in a poor area of southern Illinois, where families came together every month to put together potluck meals. He worked in the school cafeteria, arguing with lunch ladies about how to make the food.
After working entry level jobs in a local restaurant, Gustin joined the Navy at age 20 — inspiring the name, Blue Anchor Coffee and Bistro. While working as a supply officer in Pennsylvania, the Navy also paid for Gustin to go to culinary school.
He’s been mixing those skill sets, cooking and supply management, for much of his career. He worked at major sports stadiums around the country, before moving back to the Midwest and eventually becoming executive chef at Cedar Lake Cellars.
A self-employed catering service came next, and grew to the point where it needed its own commercial kitchen. Gustin said his wife, Tammy, encouraged him to strike out on his own, and their family put in all the work that turned Blue Anchor into a reality.
After the lease for the building was signed earlier this year, family members with the right skills came after their day jobs to replace walls and ceilings, completely rebuild the kitchen, and refinish or replace the restaurant’s wooden floors. Others helped to paint and decorate.
With their hard work, and Gustin’s own experience in purchasing equipment and furniture, the startup cost to rehab and open the Blue Anchor was $30,000, paid partly through a small business loan.
Gustin said he hopes guests feel the same sense of family that made the bistro a reality.
“It’s about the community. As much as I want to make money, this whole place is about the community.”