BJ’s BBQ doubles down on giving back

restaurant feeds firefighters, helps young chefs, rewards employees

PHOTO/JOHNATHAN L. WRIGHT: Jay Rathmann, chef-owner of BJ's Nevada Barbecue Company, said the restaurant is as busy as ever only two months after returning to full capacity.

It’s been a year of firsts in 2021 for BJ’s Nevada Barbecue Company of Sparks. (All hail ribs, brisket, kick ass fries!)

Yes, there has been the novel experience of emerging from the pandemic into ingredient shortages and staffing challenges — even as customer traffic quickly returned to pre-pandemic levels.

But that first isn’t the only first being celebrated by BJ’s, which has been owned for 30 of its 35 years by the Rathmann family.

The restaurant, although long used to large catering gigs, recently marked a first when it provided thousands of meals to firefighters on short notice in July. BJ’s deployed its mobile kitchen to Food Truck Friday for the first time in 2021, with proceeds being donated to the training of culinary students.

And the restaurant made its Artown debut last month by volunteering to present cooking classes with Reno Recipes, a local catering and private chef outfit.

“It’s our way of giving back in ways we can do,” said Jay Rathmann, the executive chef and second generation of family owners. “Without the public, we don’t have a restaurant.”

Thousands of meals; almost no sleep

Rathmann got the telephone call early on a Saturday morning in mid-July. A fire official was on the line. There was a problem with the national caterer feeding crews fighting the Tamarack Fire south of Minden-Gardnerville. Could BJ’s Barbecue provide 350 individually packaged dinners that evening?

Do ribs lead to sticky fingers?

“We got you covered,” Rathmann recalled replying.

It was Saturday, so his regular wholesale suppliers were closed. He hit warehouse and big-box stores, “running around trying to locate product,” he said. In the meantime, the fire official was on the line again. And again.

Besides Saturday dinner, could BJ’s do breakfast for 600 on Sunday? And dinner for 650 that evening? Oh, and how about breakfast for 800 on Monday morning?

Seven cooks and dishwashers joined Rathmann to send out breakfasts like bacon and eggs or biscuits and gravy, and dinners like peppered pork loin backed by steamed produce, mashed potatoes and Hawaiian rolls.

“I couldn’t have done it without them,” Rathmann said of the crew. “We did it with only a few hours of sleep the whole weekend. We’d sleep in a booth, sleep on the floors. Then we’d get up and start on peeling 250 pounds of potatoes.”

Helping the next generation of chefs

Artown 2021 had its largest culinary component ever thanks to the partnership of BJ’s Barbecue and Reno Recipes.

Their seven cooking demonstrations ranged from preparing perfect ribs (who better than Rathmann?) to the art of the seafood boil to creating stylish charcuterie boards, a class that was also a fundraiser for Northern Nevada Hopes clinic. Rathmann donated his time and ingredients to the demonstrations.

“It was to get culinary arts into Artown,” Rathmann said. “You have fun, you teach people what you know.”

Food Truck Friday, the region’s largest food truck gathering, returned in 2021 for 13 weeks ending Aug. 27. Perhaps surprising, BJ’s Barbecue had never before participated in the event until this year, when the restaurant committed to offering pulled pork and other BJ’s standards for the entire run.

Rathmann said BJ’s was donating sales from Food Truck Friday to student culinary education at local high schools, vocational centers and Truckee Meadows Community College. The donation (goal: $65,000) will be made through High Sierra Chefs Association (Rathmann is the president).

“Say you need equipment,” the chef said. Instead of a lengthy purchasing process at the school, “they can come to us, ask for the equipment, and we’re able to get it in two weeks: pots, pans, cutting boards, spoons, whisks, ladles, and chafers so when they do events and they go somewhere, they can set up.”

The donation will also help fund culinary scholarships. “It’s a good thing for me to do,” Rathmann said. “They’re my next line cook or breakfast cook.”

A day of rest for employees

PHOTO/JOHNATHAN L. WRIGHT: Brawny breakfast burritos are among the menu favorites at BJ’s Nevada Barbecue Company in Sparks, owned by the Rathmann family for 30 years.

During the pandemic, BJ’s Barbecue trimmed its hours from seven days to Tuesday through Saturday. Staff is down 20 percent. And yet, on Saturday, July 24, the restaurant sent out nearly 900 meals, a Before Times number Rathmann said has been the case since BJ’s returned to full capacity on June 1.

“It’s been a fireball. Zero to 100 in two seconds. Which is good, other than the staffing issue.” Rathmann decided his employees needed a break from the rush, and so he gave them a paid day off on Saturday, July 31.

“Saturday is our heavy day, and it’s economics for us, but Saturday is the weekend, and you’d rather have Saturday off. We have fantastic employees. Last time I checked, we can’t do this without employees.”

Happy staff, happy ribs.

Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink writer for Reno News & Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ItsJLW or on Facebook personally or at @FoodNevada. Sign up here for the Reno News & Review free weekly newsletter highlighting our most recent stories.

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