In the fresh shadow of Target Field lies Joseph F. Palen Restaurant Equipment, and if you go on a grey autumn day you’ll feel something wicked creep up the nape of your neck. It’s a bunker of a building; the wares inside grow into it like mushrooms, stacks of NSF tables teeter in a Seusssical way.
Such a curious place. Back when we used the Yellow Pages, his ad in the restaurant supply section had a picture of Gandhi. The building houses used restaurant supplies for sale that spill over into the back lot, jamming cargo cars with clipless metro-shelving and greasy chairs. When a restaurant dies, Joe is the vulture who picks the flesh of the freshly dead. To lose your restaurant is a horrible thing; to have Joe offer you 10 cents on the dollar for your equipment is a scarring matter and although I cannot reconcile it, Joe is necessary.
I start in the back, in a little room housing the “fancy stuff,” proper Stratford stamped sterling silver flatware from the Minneapolis Club and hammered gothic samovars. I imagine the dining pageantry of long time past, some polish and elbow grease would bring them back easily enough. The room has a stash of chef knives, mostly with blades the wrong shape. Knives, which started out as 8” half moons, have been sharpened over the years into a mean shank, filet knives ground down to toothpicks, fileted out. But among these misfit toys are gems, I don’t know when I’ll need a 14” saber but it's German steel and looks pretty bad ass; now I just have to get Joe to sell it.
In the next area are 18 giant shelves of used small wares. These are where the deals are and Joe will sell most of this stuff without much jawing. If you go to a domestic kitchen store and see the label “Professional Grade,” it’s a lie. Those items are replicas of what’s contained in the next six rows at a quarter of the price. Heavy pub pint glasses, metal sieves with dings on the collar, cookie sheets that don’t pop in the oven, whisks that haven’t rusted in decades, each row representing the dendrochronology of the dining world. The baking aisle over flowed with heavy cast bread pans when the no-carb craze hit and when the Cattle Company sold, sizzle platters racked up in the hundreds. The final samba of Chi Chi’s yielded the mother lode of unchipped Fiestaware.
My favorite is Homer Laughlin white dinner plates. Those blank stoneware canvases you can see in the most and least expensive restaurants. I’m sure these plates have been sold, reclaimed, and sold again, and if they can withstand that journey, they’ll last a lifetime in your cabinets. The next row over is the signature pattern restaurant plates, and to see them here hurts my heart. I can remember their chefs and the food presented on them, and because I don’t want to conjure the dead I walk past. I end in the hot beverage area, where most things are tannin stained and industrial, but I spot a porcelain cow creamer and snatch it hoping Joe’s sister Edna isn’t looking. I love this cow. At our local dinette, a millennium ago, I remember there being a hollow cow creamer for coffee and a jewel tone tin ashtray in every booth. 'I will liberate you, Cow, and put you back into service.'
I make my way to the checkout desk, cow and saber in hand, to see Edna. This is where you need to call in your resolve. First of all, Joe is as best as I can describe him, a hippy-communist-Sanford and Son-lumberjack-bornagainer-son of privilege. And he’s a talker. Second of all, nothing has a price tag. When I need equipment in a pinch, I run down to Joe’s, find what I need (i.e. table mount can opener) walk out the back, throw it over the fence, walk back in and slap down $40, telling Edna to have Joe call me if he doesn't like the price. If Joe wants more, I pay him in trade with a meal; not really an ideal situation but it's how we work best.
Now, when I shop for home use, I know the rules are different and I usually have time to banter. I chat with Edna, a saint of a woman, who never complains about lack of heat in the warehouse or pulls a face when Joe barks; she sits content with fingerless wool gloves in an igloo of restaurant supply catalogues. Joe appears, starting in mid-sentence as if we’ve been chatting all day, fills me in on his next humanitarian trip to Cuba, and probes me for any inside dirt. Even though it’s a process with Joe, I like it. He’s one of the people who make the Twin Cities special because his shop really couldn’t exist in another city. The prairie people here are good and tolerant, and, well, bargaining is not really a Minnesota virtue.
Chatting for 15 minutes, Joe eyes my finds like a sneak and even if it seems like we’re making small talk, really we're haggling. That’s the genius of Joe: finding out what I know and what it’ll do for him. "Fair enough, Joe," I think, "but I’m getting the goods." Finally I say, “Just looking around I found these lost souls and thought I’d take ‘em off your hands.” Joe starts his Ali-esque ducking and diving verse by saying, “Humm, they’re really not for sale but decorations.”
I pause and cock back, “Shit Joe, they’re just taking up space. Bytheway , did yer’ hear ‘bout those Quiznos' closing?” I got the cow, but not the saber.
Joseph F. Palen Restaurant Equipment
1055 N. 5th St., Mpls., 612-338-7409