Will Drake Jethro’s ever reopen? Its biggest fan’s heart says ‘yes,’ but all visible signs point to ‘no’

The black-and-white Instagram post shows chairs turn up on tables and neon lights look hot white in the otherwise darkened bar.

The caption reads: “Closing time at #Jethro’s 1.0, the original and my favorite. They say they’ll be back by March after a remodel. I miss it already. Until Jethro’s 2.0.”

I posted the picture on Dec. 9, 2021.

March came and with it the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Jethro’s remained dark.

The Drake Relays came at the end of April.

The parking lot was filled with cars, but the doors to my favorite restaurant and watering hole remained locked.

The state track meet ran this weekend. Again, the parking lot was filled. Again, Jethro’s remained closed.

Student teaching kept me in the northwest corner of the metro since January, but I still live in the Drake University neighborhood, as I have for all but two of the 18 years since I moved back to the city from St. Louis.

Jethro’s BBQ opened in 2008 and was an instant treasure to the neighborhood.

It brought a bright spot to the then-dismal Forest Avenue side of Drake’s campus.

With all the development on University Avenue around campus, it’s hard to remember that a dozen years ago, Mars Café, China Place, and Jimmy John’s were the pillars of off-campus life.

That’s not a knock on any of those establishments. I’ve eaten many roast beef sandwiches from Jimmy John’s and gotten takeout from China Place.

I’ve sat for our sipping a cup of coffee at Mars and trying to look important and writerly hunched over my laptop.

But Jethro’s was my place. I got to know the staff so well I knew their schedules.

When I was a columnist for the local newspaper, I picked up a lot of story ideas at Jethro’s just listening to what people talked about at the bar.

I don’t drink much, but I gulped down iced tea over boneless wings, burgers, brisket, ham, jalapeno cream corn, and macaroni and cheese.

I got to know my fellow customers, first by their faces and then by names.

I often closed the restaurant, staying late to talk to my favorite bartenders or managers.

I became friends with Bruce Gerleman, Jethro’s owner.

Jethro’s became a franchise. The original at Drake spawned one in Johnston, Ankeny, Altoona, West Des Moines, Waukee, Ames, and a southside store in the old Orlando’s Pizza building.

It irked Bruce when I called that one Jethlandos.

I ran into Bruce some months back, around the holidays I think, out at the Waukee restaurant. We chatted.

I asked him about the Drake store. He said big things were coming.

Bruce always says that. He’s not lying. He’s just positive that way. He’s a real estate man and restaurant mogul.

In his mind, big things are always coming.

This doesn’t seem true for the Drake Jethro’s.

I don’t know if Drake Jethro’s will ever reopen.

Bruce said it would.

I don’t share his rosy assessment.

To be fair, I haven’t peeked in the windows. I don’t know if renovations are underway.

The truth is I’m afraid to look because I worry the answer is no.

They’ve done a good job keeping the lot clean. The bit of grass by the restaurant is mowed. Weeds aren’t poking up through the cracks in the lot.

But it’s been so long.

People’s habits change so quickly.

David Halberstam, one of America’s greatest journalists, wrote a book about the 1949 American League pennant race.

He described what it was like for a rookie to take the place of an established star.

The first year, they say the new kid isn’t as good as the old star.

The second year, they say the new kid is all right, but he’s not the old star.

In the third year, they say “What old star?”

Twenty-first-century life moves faster than baseball in 1949.

I fear the Drake Jethro’s has faded from people’s memory.

There are new restaurants along University Avenue. The old guitar show is now a burger joint. There’s a variety of diverse new cuisines across from Old Main.

Mars, China Place, and Jimmy John’s are still open.

Forest has gotten more crowded. Casey’s opened a convenience store without gas across the street from Jethro’s.

There’s a Mexican restaurant on the site of a former Taco Bell-KFC where the lot is filled with cars only — unlike Drake Jethro’s — people can go inside and eat a meal.

Maybe it’s ridiculous to put up this fuss for the restaurant.

There are plenty of Jethro’s in town. And I occasionally get my fix at them.

But it’s not the same. My people have all scattered to different locations. I miss them as much as the food.

The regulars are regulars somewhere else.

I know this is silly, but one night I got takeout from the Jethro’s in West Des Moines. I drove to the Drake Jethro’s lot.

I turned off the car, put on the radio, and rolled down the windows.

I ate and thought about the old days. I could see all the TVs were gone.

The Christmas wreaths were still on the roof and the Christmas lights lit up at dusk.

The neon signs still glowed. A few had burned out. I saw the Ruthie beer sign that always begged Bruce to give me one. I’m a fan of local pop culture and things that light up.

I finished my food. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this felt like visiting a grave.

I drove away before a cop came by and asked what I was doing loitering in the parking lot of a closed restaurant.

If it was up to me, Drake Jethro’s would return.

But it isn’t.

All I can hope is that Drake Jethro’s was.

And it might be again.


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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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.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
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