Say it ain’t so, Jethro: Neighborhood BBQ restaurant goes on hiatus for remodel

The original Jethro’s BBQ restaurant is closing for more than three months for remodeling.

Owner Bruce Gerleman publicly announced the temporary closure Wednesday afternoon in an email to customers. The staff have been offered jobs at other Jethro’s restaurants. Nobody will lose their job.

But they’re breaking up the band. I’ve become close to many of the staff, especially the bartenders at Jethro’s. The restaurant is my neighborhood haunt. I eat there. I drink there. I socialize there. It’s my default stop for everything.

The Jethro’s by Drake has a great staff.

I made friends with many of the servers, bartenders, managers, and even some of the kitchen and bus staff over the years.

I became such a regular, they let me stay late after close and finish a ball game or chat with the staff while I sipped iced tea. (I’m not much of a drinker.)

I knew something was up the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when I stopped in for a burger and pop.

Bruce was there getting some takeout for his family event. We’ve gotten to know each other well over the years. I’ve laughed with Bruce both alone and with an entourage on many nights.

Bruce is one of those friends I’ve come to value in my middle-age. We don’t agree on a lot of things, especially politics, but I enjoy talking to him and we are able to do so in calm, respectful tones, and let disagreements lie when the food is served.

All conversations were far off the record in my reporting days. Now that I’m not a reporter or columnist anymore, all my conversations are off the record. I report for no one and can keep whatever confidence I like.

Bruce and I talked about how things were going at the store that spawned six other Jethro’s in the metro. The conversation was private, but news wasn’t good.

He told me to wait for a big announcement.

“Don’t break my heart,” I said.

The staff had just finished meeting with the managers when I stopped by Tuesday after classes.

My friend Sarah, one of the people who helped me after knee surgery, is their daytime bartender. The news upset Sarah so much she almost hyperventilating through tears.

She’d stopped crying by the time I threw a leg over a bar chair, but her face was puffy from crying so hard. She loves her coworkers. They sometimes go on trips together.

Sure, they can see each other after work and on days off, but it won’t be the same as working side-by-side as they have for years.

Sarah takes the time to get to know her regulars. She knows their names and, in many cases, has pulled the cap off a bottle of their favorite beer by the time they cross from the door to the bar.

Jethro’s is no different than any of scores of neighborhood bars and restaurants. The only different is it was my place. It was my “Cheers.” I felt comfortable. That’s rare for me in public spaces. The only place I feel as loose and free to be me is the comic book shop.

I like the people and that it’s close to home.

There’s a handful of painters who show up nearly every day about 2 p.m. They have beers and shots, talk loudly, and laugh louder.

They’ve bought me a shot or two over the years and included me in their conversations, complete with friendly razzing. I became friends with a couple of guys who work at MercyOne — one a fellow Yankees fan and the other a fellow East High alumnus.

I hope the remodel happens and that it goes well.

Change is hard, but maybe it’s for the best. I will have less time to drop in next semester when I’m student teaching. And I should probably get back to eating healthier.

I am hopeful Jethro’s will return. They closed during the pandemic, as all restaurants did. I worried then that people’s habits would change too much even with a short closure.

Maybe they did. I must admit that the nights that used to be impossible to get a seat at the bar — like half-price boneless wing night — seemed to be increasingly fewer in recent months.

Drake didn’t have fans at basketball games last year despite both teams being very good. All the other big events — the Drake Relays, concerts, plays, recitals, high school football, and major speakers — were cancelled.

Jethro’s needs Drake to be robust and lively.

The students visit the restaurant sometimes, but it’s the people who come to the neighborhood to see things at Drake that pack the house.

The regulars like me, the painters, and the guys from MercyOne help, sure, but we’re not enough to make a full-service bar and restaurant make a profit.

Maybe a new look is just what the old place needed.

The talk is shifting the bar into a U-shape rather than its current square and enclosing the current patio that is currently a makeshift collection of red tarps. The menu is going to simplify, down to the core meats, sandwiches, and sides.

That’s fine. Jethro’s menu is probably a little too deep. They say variety is the spice of life. I say you keep trying new things and eventually you’re going to find something that gives you heartburn.

I hope the remodel works. I hope the menu shuffle works.

I hope in mid-March, I’m writing about how great it is to have Jethro’s back in the neighborhood.

Most of all, I hope I see my friends again.

Letting those folks drift away would be a lot worse than heartburn.


Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
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