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Boise restaurateur John Berryhill: I take sides now

John Berryhill on bacon

John Berryhill, owner and chef of John Berryhill's Bacon and Berryhill Restaurant Bar in Downtown Boise, waxes eloquent about the allure of ... bacon.
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John Berryhill, owner and chef of John Berryhill's Bacon and Berryhill Restaurant Bar in Downtown Boise, waxes eloquent about the allure of ... bacon.

John Berryhill used to worry that speaking his mind would mean losing patrons at his Downtown restaurants, Bacon and Berryhill & Co.

So he avoided talking about politics. His staff wore caps with the letter “B” that were in two color schemes: Bronco orange and blue, and Vandal black and gold.

For 20 years after opening as a catering company in 1995, Berryhill says he was afraid of turning away food snobs by offering macaroni and cheese. He still sold mac and cheese, and people loved it. But he called it “penne with five cheeses.”

Berryhill, 56, says he decided to stop caring about what others think when he consolidated his two restaurants, which already operated in the same building, into a single space at 121 N. 9th St. The new operation opened in January. Combined, they employ about 50 people. Mac and cheese is on the Berryhill menu.

Q: How do two restaurants operate in the same space?

A: It’s a flip concept, with two separate entities. The chefs and employees pass each other. Everything changes. Berryhill is a full-service restaurant. Bacon is a counter-service restaurant.

At 3, Bacon closes and Berryhill opens. There’s this choreographed, awkward dance that goes on between the chefs. Bacon is still cooking, and you’ve got Berryhill people trying to get their food in.

On a busy night, the last Berryhill people are out at 3. The first Bacon people are in to open at 7.

Q: What led you to consolidate your operations into a single space?

A: I wanted to simplify. I’m getting a little older. I like getting out of town more. I was reworking the numbers, and I had too much square footage, with a lounge in addition to the two restaurants and a bunch of conference rooms. Those were good revenue centers, but the ROI [return on investment] wasn’t where it needed to be.

Q: You bounced around the South as a kid, and that influence shows up in your menu. When did you take an interest in food?

A: In high school, my dad was a preacher, but he went through a time where he ran a restaurant. I was in third grade. I really dug that.

Every preacher goes through the Amways, Shacklees, all of the multilevel pyramid schemes to try to make money, because they ain’t making it at the church. Who knows where all those tax-free tithings go.

The restaurant was one of those get-rich-quick schemes. It was about as successful as any of the others. That was in Monroe, Louisiana.

There’s this the ying and yang to comfort food, like how Berryhill bacon has sugars and chilies. The chairs are comfortable, but they are hard wood. I like that.

Restaurateur John Berryhill

Q: When was your first restaurant job?

A: It was 1976 in Alabama. I was in 10th grade. I was a dishwasher. What an awesome job. Double dishwashers. Foggy. Throwing spuds through the fog and hoping you’d hit a waiter coming through.

I moved from there to Crystal Burgers. I got to cook. I moved to Georgia and worked at Sonic as a fry cook. I’ve always liked Sonic ever since. Then I moved to Arkansas.

Q: Why did your family move so much?

A: I don’t like to talk too bad about my dad, but I talk bad about everything because it’s funny. He was a rover, kind of a food truck preacher. We lived everywhere. It could have been because, like many preachers, they had cute secretaries, or at least looked cute in that moment, but they had cankles under the desk. Then their fellowship sends them down the road to the next place. Kind of like priests. That’s why we went to Africa.

Q: How did you get your start in the restaurant scene in Boise?

A: I followed a girl here, my first wife, in 1995.

I was running Brando’s, a cigar bar at corner of Idaho and Capitol in 1996. I’d moved catering from my house. I leased their kitchen.

Brando’s was an awesome cigar bar. I did hors d’oeuvres for them. I did catering, and I started a Southern diner that I called the Jazz Beat Eatery with myself and one waiter, a vibrant, flamboyant guy. He played piano. He’d bring them in, seat them, jump on piano and play something, then take their order and jump back on piano.

It was a terrible business model. I learned a lot. It lasted a little more or less than a year.

Q: What planted the early seeds for Berryhill & Co?

A: When I moved the catering to what is now BoDo, I was just looking for a catering kitchen. Girls from the shops came in and asked if I could make them soup or sandwiches for lunch. I started making them a little soup. They’d pull up a chair in the kitchen.

Eventually, they started paying and bringing friends. I ran out of stools, and the kitchen was only so big. The restaurant that was there before had these ugly green tables upstairs. I brought a few tables down, got a few chairs. That’s exactly how the restaurant started.

Q: So, starting that restaurant wasn’t always the plan?

A: I didn’t want to be a sandwich place. But 8th Street Deli closed, and I started getting a slew of people coming in. I got stuck in doing sandwiches. We opened as a wine bar but had sandwiches and salads at lunch. [Michael] Deeds was the first one to review me, in the Statesman. I didn’t want people just to sit and drink wine. I wanted them to eat. I told him that, and he said, “If you only drink wine, you’ll probably get free food.” That’s how Berryhill started.

Q: You bill Berryhill & Co. as “slightly Southern dining.” What does that mean?

A: I’ve had a little comfort to every menu I’ve done. Even before, when we were fine dining, serving with linens, I’d be fine when people would pick food up with their fingers. I do it all the time.

I like comfort food, and to me, that’s the South. It’s comfortable. It’s sitting around the table with Mom, eating family style. You can put your elbows on the table. It’s not just about the dish itself.

Q: You mentioned that you always served mac and cheese, but you only started calling it that in 2016. Why?

A: It used to be I wouldn’t say if I liked the Broncos or the Vandals, Saint Al’s or St. Luke’s, Republican or Democrat. I was afraid to call it mac and cheese.

But as I got older, I thought, “Who cares?” Last year, when I was working on the menu, I decided to do what I want. I’d already professed my love for the Broncos. I started calling myself a blue-dog Democrat, or a liberal Republican. I don’t care who you sleep with, but I’m a fiscal conservative. So I started saying things, and I’ve proclaimed that the menu has a Southern essence. But that’s not just the food.

Q: You are closer to a CEO than a head chef nowadays. What are your daily duties?

A: I still do all the steering. I’m working on the new menus. We’re in flux with those. Specials change all the time. Since we do all our own printing, some things will change if I can’t get scallops, for example. We are in a real seasonal town. This town changes in seasons.

Q: What are your sales?

A: I’m undergoing a big change this year, and it’s not about numbers because I need a full year. Everything is performing, and some things are outperforming, projections. We’re definitely in the black. I don’t really care about how much we bring in. I care how much we keep.

Q: What’s your favorite dish here?

A: The Arkansas sandwich at Bacon is so simple it’s ridiculous. It’s a big-a-- biscuit, fried chicken, gravy, and I like to put an easy-over egg and bacon on it with another biscuit. It’s called a “sammich.”

In my parts of the South, they didn’t concern themselves with putting starch with starch. It’s momma cookin.’ I just think that dish has really wonderful flavors.

Edited for length and clarity. Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @IDS_ZachKyle