In early June, shortly after restaurant dining returned to Des Moines from the COVID-19 shutdown, Kelly Anderson Vizcarra took her two sons, ages seven and ten, to Jethro’s BBQ Southside, the newest installment of the popular Des Moines restaurant chain. After a quality meal with what she described as stellar service, she sent her sons to the restroom to wash up. When they returned, the children recounted how they had been accosted by an old man who had “cussed at them” and “told them to wash their hands because they had been touching their dicks, and that’s what grown men do before they talk to girls.” The man ended the encounter, they said, by calling them “stupid kids.”
Vizcarra walked out to the restaurant’s patio to find the man who had confronted her children and found none other than Bruce Gerleman — longtime Des Moines real estate developer, landlord, and owner of nine restaurants that include Splash Seafood Bar & Grill and eight Jethro’s BBQ locations throughout central Iowa — seated on the patio with his longtime romantic partner, Cynthia Fodor, a two-time Emmy award-winning anchor for local news station KCCI. When Vizcarra told Gerleman what her sons had told her, he replied, “Yeah, I know.”
Although Vizcarra posted about the incident on Facebook, she said there was no recourse. Her server that day saw the post and commented to apologize, but Vizcarra heard nothing further on the subject from either Gerleman or the restaurant’s managers. This incident, however, did offer a glimpse into the behavior and character of a 69-year-old Iowa business tycoon who, in a career spanning four decades, has been counted among the city’s powerbrokers.
A subsequent investigation by the Informer based on newspaper archives, court documents, and allegations disclosed in interviews with ten current and former employees at Splash Seafood Bar & Grill and five Jethro’s locations paint a more complex portrait of Gerleman than that of the public image from which he’s long benefitted. According to this group of employees who worked at his restaurants and observed his behavior for years, Gerleman sexually harassed employees on multiple occasions and had a heavy drinking habit that contributed to toxic workplace environments and made him a difficult, egocentric boss. (Gerleman has never been accused of any criminal conduct in a court of law involving sexual harassment or other mistreatment of his employees. Allegations of sexual harassment included in this story do not suggest criminal conduct.) This investigation also revealed that the restaurants overseen by Gerleman employed managers who have been accused of sexually harassing servers under their supervision.
“He’s definitely a type of person that feels like he needs to be in control and other rules don’t apply to him,” a former employee who had spent nearly a decade working under Gerleman at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Jambalaya in Waukee told the Informer.
“The entire foundation of this ‘hit piece’ is without foundation or fact,” Gerleman said in an emailed statement responding to a request for comment explaining the allegations from employees included in this story. “Journalism #101 teaches fairness and balance, while life teaches us all, that there are two sides to every story. The writer of this ‘hit piece’ has presented only one side of the story. In a lack of fairness, the writer did not give me the opportunity to respond to his nameless sources. In these days of Covid it is imperative that everyone must wash their hands. The safety of my guests and staff is always critically important. I am proud of my Team at Jethro’s and Splash. I have a genuine concern and caring for all 800 of my employees… both male and female. I have always worked and tried to make our World and Des Moines a better place. I vehemently deny this gossip and deeply resent the writer attempting to tarnish my 35 year career and reputation.”
In 2007, an 18-year-old woman named Dorothy was visiting a 19-year-old relative at her new studio apartment in downtown Des Moines when the landlord stopped by and invited them both to his own apartment for drinks. He served them both strongly mixed White Russian cocktails, according to Dorothy, despite them both being under the legal drinking age. (Dorothy is a pseudonym; the employees who spoke to the Informer asked to remain anonymous, saying they were concerned about potential retaliation from Gerleman and his associates.)
“He got a little bit handsy with me and I got uncomfortable,” Dorothy recalled. “[My relative and I] still talk about it to this day, it was so weird.”
Her relative’s landlord introduced himself as Bruce Gerleman, then a 56-year-old restaurant owner who had already been a long-established and vaunted real estate developer in Des Moines. That night was just the beginning. Gerleman discovered that she worked at a bar downtown and became a frequent customer.
“He started coming by my bar every night,” she said. “It became a running joke with my supervisor at work. He would come in, sit at the bar. He would grab me around the waist. He would try to kiss me on the lips and I would always try to turn so he would get my cheek, though he did get my lips a few times. Completely inappropriate.”
Night after night, Gerleman subjected Dorothy to unwanted attention and inappropriate physical contact. He offered to take her shopping and on vacation with him in Florida. Eventually, she moved on from the job at the downtown bar and slipped away from the unwanted attention from a much older man.
Gerleman would open his first Jethro’s restaurant the following year in Des Moines. According to each of the ten employees who worked at his restaurants and spoke to the Informer, Gerleman would continue to target and sexually harass women who worked for him.
“Every time a new girl, especially a host, would come in, especially if it was a good-looking host and it was a young girl, Bruce was very inappropriate with them,” a former employee at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Jambalaya said. “He always had to have them come over and meet them. He would have some of them do a turn, do a spin, so he could look them over and say, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty, you’re so cute.’ All the inappropriate things you don’t do. He had to know who they were. You had to show them a picture of Bruce when they started, because you would get reprimanded if you didn’t know who Bruce was.”
“He started coming by my bar every night. It became a running joke with my supervisor at work.”
Gerleman’s alleged behavior around young women would vary. At times, he was careful to make his overtures less blatant, but in other instances he could be crass, deliberate, and forward about his desires.
“Bruce’s way of finding that out [if we were underage] was by asking us, ‘What college do you go to?’ only to be told that we were still in high school,” a woman who worked at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Jambalaya when she was 16 said. “His response was being straightforward, cold, and dismissive when he was told we were underage. This is a good thing, but nonetheless weird. I remember distinctly, on multiple occasions, him putting his arms around my shoulders, or his hand on the back of my waist, as a ‘friendly’ reminder to sweep up by a certain table.”
“Pretty much every time I saw him, he’d be hitting on a bartender or server,” a former employee at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Bacon Bacon in West Des Moines said. “They were all of age. But there are several times I’ve seen him make inappropriate comments to the underage host staff. One that comes to mind is when he said to a hostess, ‘I wonder what you taste like down there, honey!'”
Some managers familiar with Gerleman’s attitude toward the women who worked at his restaurants would attempt to mitigate his behavior. “Whenever he would show up at my restaurant, our hostess, I would send her to the back to do some miscellaneous cleaning,” a former manager at the now-closed Bigfoot Bacon ‘n Brew in Altoona said. “He would just hound her. He would say things like, ‘Your hair’s so pretty,’ and touch her hair.”
On at least one occasion, an employee claimed to have been pressured to lie in order to protect Gerleman from the consequences of this harassment. “We had this hostess in Altoona,” the employee, who was working at Jethro’s ‘n Jake’s Smokehouse Steaks, told the Informer. “He goes up to her drunk one night and says, ‘If I buy you a black cocktail dress, will you be my date to a private event at Splash after this?’ All managers working that night had to fill out statements. I fill out mine and move on. Days later, he comes up to me and another employee and says, ‘Would you say I was drunk? I said I thought he may have had a few. He then said, ‘Would you bet your job that I was?’ I then had to rewrite my statement to mention I never actually saw him drink.”
Beyond Gerleman’s alleged harassment of young women employed at his restaurants, one former employee recounted a moment in 2015 at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Jambalaya with striking parallels to the alleged harassment of Kelly Anderson Vizcarra’s sons at Jethro’s BBQ Southside in early June. One night, after the dinner rush, the former employee was called out to deal with an altercation between Gerleman and an angry customer in the dining area. As he tried to diffuse the altercation, the customer accused Gerleman of harassing his eight- and 10-year-old children in the restroom.
The man alleged that Gerleman was in the restroom with his two sons asking them to “dip their dicks in the water of the urinal” and tell him if the water was cold or not. Then, the man claimed, Gerleman asked his sons, “Can’t you feel that, can’t you feel how it’s cold?”
Among the myriad allegations revealing an apparent pattern of sexual harassment and the toxic workplace environments fostered at Splash Seafood Bar & Grill and the Jethro’s restaurants, a question remains: Who, exactly, is Bruce Gerleman and how did he become one of the most powerful businessmen in central Iowa?
According to the personal history laid out in the pages of The Des Moines Register during the early days of Gerleman’s rise and repeated in the 20-part hagiography on the official Jethro’s website, Gerleman came from humble beginnings. He graduated from Wichita State University in Kansas with a marketing degree in the early 1970s. According to Gerleman himself, he then found great success selling mattresses and invested his profits into real estate. Gerleman first turned up in the pages of Register in 1979 as a 27-year-old owner of a few Super Tan locations in the metro area. But that was just the beginning.
In the early 1980s, as the Reagan administration took the White House and Republican Robert Ray’s departure from the governor’s mansion ushered in the first Terry Branstad era, changes in tax law and an eagerness among the local Des Moines government to incentivize the revitalization of the downtown neighborhood following the suburban white flight of the 1970s created the perfect environment for Gerleman to cash in and make his name. New tax credits for historic renovations allowed him to move in on several properties in the downtown neighborhood for relatively low risk. (A 1983 Register article indicated that he was able to write off 80 percent of one of his earliest investments, the renovation of the Homestead Building.)
Gerleman’s takeover of the downtown neighborhood was contentious. He went to the City Council in 1983 and asked them to use federal money and issue revenue bonds to build a parking lot for his $6 million development that he claimed would result in a dinner theater, movie theaters, a grocery store, and medical facilities, in a district that was already occupied with gay bars, adult bookstores, an adults-only movie theater, and buildings that would require condemnation from the city to move forward. After a report in the Register identified the area’s current businesses as a “haven from homosexuals,” a bartender named Jerry Rasak grew angry, saying he had been trying to cultivate a “straight trade” at the bars he owned on Court Avenue, but ended up painting his bar pink and putting up a sign that said “this is a gay bar … gays welcome” to join with them in a their fight against Gerleman’s grand development plans.
This fight frustrated the young Gerleman. “All I wanted to do was present a positive project for the city of Des Moines and now it’s clouded with the homosexual issue,” he told the paper at the time. (In a 2017 interview with the Des Moines lifestyle publication Cityview, Gerleman claimed that he “helped the gay bars move to the east side.”)
“He’s young, aggressive, and trying to work his way onto the frontlines of downtown redevelopment.”
Gerleman would eventually have his way. His name appeared repeatedly in the pages of the Register’s business section throughout the 1980s, often listed among Des Moines property titans like John Ruan and Bob Knapp. His acquisition and renovation of downtown properties was eagerly facilitated by the Des Moines City Council, which condemned buildings he needed condemned, spent money on alterations to the streetscape that he requested, allowed him to exert influence over the construction of the Des Moines skywalk, and doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and local loans to his benefit.
For his development work, he was lauded. A glowing Register profile of Gerleman published in November 1983 began with the sentence, “He’s young, aggressive, and trying to work his way onto the frontlines of downtown redevelopment.” In 1987, he was featured prominently at the Register’s “Outstanding Young Citizen Banquet” that was headlined by pop psychologist Joyce Brothers. At the end of that year, he was featured in longtime Register columnist Chuck Offenberger’s Iowa Honor Roll with the praise, “Gets buildings built that John Ruan can’t.”
Then the 1980s came to an end. In 1991, Gerleman fought to evict Jukebox Saturday Night, the once-popular downtown bar he had been lauded for enticing to the downtown area, for overdue rent. The International Trade Center that Gerleman built from the ruins of an old Younkers building and pushed hard to make a success fizzled out and rent collection at the Saddlery Building, an early crown jewel among his downtown rental properties, was wrested away from him by the government. When the flood of 1993 devastated the downtown neighborhood, Gerleman was quoted in the Register worrying that “the picture Americans will remember is of a city that couldn’t protect its water supply.” The opening of Puff’s Smoking Lounge in Gerleman’s Locust Mall property in 1997 and its closure a year later, along with the sale of the mall, was his last gasp at downtown Des Moines real estate development. Splash Seafood Bar & Grill was opened in 1998 on Locust Street, marking the dawn of Gerleman’s nascent restaurant empire.
Gerleman, a noted tennis enthusiast throughout his life, spent the early 2000s as the coach for Dowling Catholic High School’s girls tennis team. In 2007, Toni Gerleman, whom Gerleman married back in his Wichita State days, had her petition for divorce finalized. The details of the divorce offer a unique view into the assets and capital accumulated by the couple since their marriage in 1974. Toni Gerleman was awarded an alimony of $3,000 per month, a $2.8 million cash settlement, the family home in Cumming, and various tracts of land and property throughout the country. She even retained exclusive ownership of a stuffed fish mounted on a wall in Splash Seafood Bar & Grill and was technically entitled to a free dinner at the restaurant up to $200 in value every week, if she wished. Even after the assets were divided, Gerleman’s net worth was valued at $8.1 million.
“Gets buildings built that John Ruan can’t.”
In 2008, Gerleman opened Jethro’s BBQ in a building formerly occupied by the Des Moines Police Department’s traffic unit just off the Drake University campus in Des Moines. This was the first of his barbecue restaurants that, in a decade, would be present in nearly every region of the Des Moines metro. The restaurant originally opened with an aesthetic much more blatantly referential to its namesake, the popular 1960s television show The Beverly Hillbillies. Gerleman originally planned to have the show play on a loop inside the restaurant and named many of the dishes after the show’s characters. A 2009 lawsuit from CBS prompted a negotiation with the network over how the trademark could be used, and Gerleman pivoted slightly to a more generalized branding. (“The first known reference on our planet to a man named Jethro was in the OLD TESTAMENT,” the Jethro’s official history argues.)
Over the next decade, Gerleman successfully built up his Jethro’s empire. Eight Jethro’s restaurants are currently open for business in central Iowa. Long-standing relationships with local media and a knack for marketing resulted in positive and uncritical coverage for every location opening and each eating challenge conquered, not just in The Des Moines Register but also national publications like Better Homes & Gardens and ESPN. Aside from the inability of the Altoona market to accommodate a second Jethro’s location, either in the form of the ill-fated Italian restaurant Jethroni Pepperoni or its reinvention as Bigfoot Bacon ‘n Brew, the franchise has been wildly successful. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a new Jethro’s location in Clear Lake, which would be the first outside location outside of central Iowa, was in the works.
Gerleman has been an active and public supporter of the Republican Party throughout his business career. In 1988, when he opened his International Trade Center, Gerleman rented space out to the Iowa GOP as well as televangelist and then-presidential candidate Pat Robertson. Republican presidential debate watch parties have been held at Jethro’s restaurants and high-profile Republican operatives have made appearances at Jethro’s, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who appeared with Gerleman at a Jethro’s BBQ location in 2019. The restaurants have served as pit stops on the campaign trail for Republican politicians like Joni Ernst, who has a rally scheduled two days before the election at Jethro’s BBQ Steak ‘n Chop in Ames (although they are not exclusive to Republicans — Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar also campaigned at the Ames location in January while running for president).
In 2017, Gerleman claimed to support a minimum wage hike while an employee of his restaurant actively lobbied against it. When Polk County (where most Jethro’s restaurants are located) considered raising the minimum wage, Mike Holms, a Jethro’s employee and chairman of the Iowa Restaurant Association, lobbied against the measure before the Polk County Minimum Wage Taskforce, claiming it would hurt business growth. When a letter to the editor of the Register accused Jethro’s of working against a minimum wage increase, Gerleman jumped to his own defense. In a high profile, half-page op-ed, he claimed that he “never spoke out opposing the raising of the minimum wage” and that Holms was not representing Jethro’s when he argued for keeping the tipped minimum wage ($4.35 per hour) unchanged. Polk and other counties in Iowa eventually decided to raise the minimum wage, only to see the measure invalidated by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The restaurant brand’s official history ends on a line about power and control. “Remember: Jethro brings order to the chaos that is the life of the modern American.”
According to a former employee at Splash and a lawsuit filed against Gerleman and Jethro’s ‘n Jake’s Smokehouse Steaks, sexual harassment was not limited to Gerleman himself, but condoned and perpetuated by other managers in his restaurants, as well.
According to a woman who worked at Splash between 2015 and 2017, then-manager Andy Crounse subjected her to consistent sexual harassment throughout her time there. (Crounse no longer works at any of Gerleman’s restaurants and did not respond to a request for comment.)
“He was always touching me inappropriately,” the woman told the Informer. “He would do things like lick my ear and neck.”
When the former Splash employee reported the harassment to Chuck Collins, the company’s sole HR representative, she claimed he demurred and said it was a he said, she said situation, suggesting, “Why don’t you go get another job?”
“I loved my job, I believed in the product and could sell it well, and made a lot of money,” the woman said, “and that’s why I continued to endure the toxic, sexist, and misogynistic environment.”
In 2012, a former employee sued Gerleman and Jethro’s ‘n Jake’s Smokehouse Steaks over alleged harassment by a then-manager named Ike Mundell, who she claimed retaliated against her after she reported the situation to the restaurant’s general manager. (Mundell did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit, from which the plaintiff eventually dismissed Gerleman.)
According to court documents, the 20-year-old former employee began facing sexual harassment from Mundell when she applied to work at the restaurant in April 2011. Mundell allegedly referred to her as the “cute little sweet blonde” and bombarded her with questions about her personal life, asking if she was married, was “with” anyone, or had any children.
The harassment, according to the allegations laid out in the lawsuit, only escalated once she became an employee of the restaurant, in both subtle and blatant ways. She requested a medium-sized shirt for her uniform but received a small that was too tight. Before cashing out the former employee at the end of shifts, Mundell would allegedly squeeze her “so that her breasts were squashed against his chest and said, ‘Oh, that’s a good one.'” Mundell punished the former employee when her boyfriend came to eat at the restaurant, refusing to let her serve him and telling her that he “didn’t like her anymore.” He also commented on her breasts, touched her behind, and verbally sexually harassed her, according to the lawsuit.
When the former employee brought concerns about the harassment to the general manager and Dominic Iannarelli, the director of restaurants for Jethro’s, they allegedly characterized it as a “he said, she said situation” and asked her to “make up” with Mundell. After she complained, the former employee claimed she faced increased retaliation in the form of reduced work hours, assignments to work unprofitable areas of the restaurant, and even a baseless accusation of sexual harassment herself before she was forced to leave the restaurant, according to the lawsuit.
Every accusation leveled against Mundell was denied by the lawyers representing Gerleman and Jethro’s ‘n Jake’s Smokehouse Steaks in a response to the lawsuit. A contentious discovery process followed. The former employee claimed that she suffered emotional and physical problems as a result of the harassment she endured. In response, Gerleman’s lawyers attempted to obtain access to the entirety of the former employee’s social media accounts and health records, arguing that they were necessary to determine if there were any other factors that may have reasonably influenced her emotional and physical health.
The lawsuit appeared to be headed to trial when the case was dismissed with prejudice in 2013 by lawyers representing the former employee. Although records of out-of-court settlements are not made available to the public, the Informer determined after consulting a legal expert that the actions taken by the former employee’s lawyers in this context indicate that such a settlement likely led to the dismissal of this lawsuit.
In 2012, while the lawsuit was underway, the Iowa Restaurant Association named Bruce Gerleman the Restaurateur of the Year.
Gerleman’s alleged harassment of young women was not the only aspect of his behavior that employees said made life harder for them at his restaurants. All of the ten employees interviewed by the Informer indicated that Gerleman’s penchant for heavy drinking not only impacted their ability to service customers and run successful restaurants, but attending to his drinking habit was a central aspect of their jobs.
“When he was drinking in the restaurant, Bruce was always number one,” a former employee at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Jambalaya said. “You had to stop what you were doing to take care of Bruce. There was a part of our training that you had to know what Bruce’s drink was (Tanqueray and soda). He always kept his limes from his drinks so he could count how many he had. He was a three count. Bruce always had to be poured heavy. If you didn’t pour Bruce heavy, he would say you weren’t counting right.”
“Bruce treated the many restaurants that he financed as his personal alcoholic jungle gym,” a current employee of Jethro’s BBQ LakeHouse in Ankeny added.
In 2008, Gerleman was charged with public intoxication outside of Splash after an officer noticed that he appeared to be drunk and then refused to submit to a sobriety test. After Gerleman demanded a jury trial, the state dismissed the charges.
In 2017, an Ames police officer pulled Gerleman over after he was observed swerving in his Maserati with its taillights off. According to court documents, Gerleman was subsequently jailed for the night after refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test. The Iowa Department of Transportation revoked Gerleman’s license for a year and an initial appeal to have his license reinstated was denied.
“If you do all those things, you might end up in the Story County jail, which is where Des Moines restaurateur Bruce Gerleman ended up the evening of Sept. 23,” Michael Gartner reported for Cityview‘s Civic Skinny column. “After being pulled over on Highway 30 by an Ames policeman, Gerleman was charged with a first offense of drunk driving.”
Gerleman responded by submitting a commentary to the publication adamantly denying the allegations, including that he was swerving in his Maserati. His OWI denial extended to his restaurants, where, according to multiple employees, Gerleman gave them a specific scripted response to deploy if customers asked about the incident.
“When you get a drunk Bruce, and a sober Bruce, they were totally different people,” a former employee at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Jambalaya said. “There were times when I was reprimanded on something and it needed to be changed the next day, the next day he wouldn’t even remember.”
This same former employee also recounted what he said Chuck Collins, the corporate human resources representative for Gerleman’s restaurants, once told him about his boss’s behavior: “The worst part of my week is Monday morning, because I’m just waiting to hear what Bruce did all weekend. There’s always something. There’s always a manager with an issue, a server with an issue, or a customer with an issue that has to do with Bruce.”
According to several former employees, Gerleman’s treatment of his employees was toxic in ways that extended beyond his excessive drinking. Allegedly, he regularly lashed out at his employees verbally before attempting to ameliorate them and excuse his behavior with cash payments.
“When you get a drunk Bruce, and a sober Bruce, they were totally different people.”
“I’ve seen him call the bartenders that served him the worst in the company to the guests drinking next to him, then praise them for doing an exemplary job in the next breath,” an employee at Jethro’s BBQ Steak ‘n Chop in Ames said. “Always, always he tipped liberally. He always knew what he was paying for and he could afford it.”
“One night when we were closing up the restaurant, he said, “If you need some extra money, when I park in my driveway at night I drop all the change from my pocket in the driveway and you guys can have that,” a former employee at Bigfoot Bacon ‘n Brew recalled.
Gerleman’s romantic entanglements often made the lives of his employees more difficult, seven people who used to work at his restaurants alleged. According to them, Gerleman often ate at the restaurants attended by a variety of women. The woman whose behavior allegedly caused the most problems, and whose alleged anger at Gerleman’s involvement with other women most often put his employees in an uncomfortable position, was Cynthia Fodor, the Emmy-winning, longtime news anchor for Des Moines news station KCCI.
Fodor referred a request for comment detailing allegations about her in this story to Charlie Wittmack, an attorney representing both her and Gerleman. Brian Sather, KCCI’s president and general manager, replied “no comment” to the same request.
Fodor has been connected to Gerleman publicly since The Des Moines Register reported their attendance together at the 60th birthday party for local attorney Jim Carney in 2008. While allegedly far from Gerleman’s only paramour, she has been his most high profile one since his divorce in 2007. According to multiple former employees of Gerleman’s restaurants, Fodor’s behavior towards employees and her contentious relationship with Gerleman directly and repeatedly caused problems for restaurant staff simply trying to do their jobs.
According to a former employee at Bigfoot Bacon ‘n Brew in Altoona, Fodor once attempted to order a martini at the bar and grew frustrated when she was informed that the restaurant only served beer and simple mixed drinks. The employee claimed that she called the bartender an “ignorant bitch” and when he tried to soothe the situation by fixing her a martini in a rocks glass, she demanded he leave the restaurant and purchase a martini glass for her.
“He [Gerleman] and Cynthia were constantly arguing in front of the staff and making them feel uncomfortable,” a former employee at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Bacon Bacon said. “She once threw a lime at our bartender because it wasn’t perfectly green.”
“Cynthia would come in and act like she owned the restaurant”
“On multiple occasions, Cynthia Fodor would come in, drunk and furious, demanding she know who Bruce was with last night, and getting very obnoxious at times to the point she had to be escorted out,” a former employee at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Jambalaya said.
“Cynthia would come in and act like she owned the restaurant, also,” another former employee at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Jambalaya said. “She would talk very condescendingly about things going on in the restaurant. I had some people on the national news visit the restaurant and Cynthia would be back there claiming she was the owner at the restaurant, which she absolutely was not. Basically Cynthia would boss staff around and tell people what to do. You weren’t allowed to talk about anything with Cynthia and him because two days later he’d be in with a different girl. It was a really awkward position. She would show up at the restaurant, call the restaurant asking if Bruce was there, wondering if he was coming by.”
A former employee at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Bacon Bacon even recalled a situation in which Fodor’s presence complicated a health crisis at the restaurant. After a customer passed out from a new medication reacting poorly to the alcohol she’d ingested, this former employee was working to assure the customer’s safety when Fodor jumped in.
“Cynthia was there and starts screaming at the top of her lungs, bloody murder,” the former employee said. “It was like something from a soap opera, it was ridiculous. Meanwhile, someone is trying to calm her down. A man who was a firefighter came to help the lady. Cynthia came over and began touching the person on the floor. I had to ask her back away about three times. We had to call 911. We waited there and she got a pen and paper out. She called Bruce and asked Bruce what to do. After that she got paper and a pen, she came over and asked her friends for the woman’s phone number. They did not want to talk to her because she was press. She started claiming that she was the owner’s wife. I said, ‘You’re not the owner’s wife, you need to back off.’ She got way too involved, turned it into a way bigger deal than it was. The woman called back to make sure they wouldn’t give any information to Cynthia.”
Others said they felt sorry for Fodor. While they witnessed the problems she caused and saw how poorly she treated the staff at various Jethro’s restaurants, they also witnessed how she was treated by Gerleman.
“He treated her like actual garbage all the time,” a former employee at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Bacon Bacon said. “He made passes at staff and guests in front of her, just downright degrading. She flew into Des Moines one snowy night when Bacon Bacon first opened. I was closing that night. I was new to the company and was super naive and wanted to make sure he knew who I was and wanted to advance. She was jet-lagged and just wanted to go home. He ended up making her go out in 30-degree weather and sleep in the car instead of leave. She came back an hour later and begged to leave. Finally he gave in and left with her. I remember how unimpressed I was of him after that.”
In the age of the coronavirus pandemic, Gerleman has pushed to keep his restaurants open and indoor dining available.
In March, after restaurants were forced to close dine-in service across the state and his employees worried over an uncertain future in the fundamentally changed restaurant and hospitality economy, Gerleman appeared on the show of conservative radio personality Simon Conway to chastise them for not saving money. “All are faced with a really sad day because the hospitality industry — right or wrong — they don’t, they’re not savers, they don’t save money, the way they should probably,” Gerleman said. “So many of these people live paycheck to paycheck, and they might have a little bit of a savings account but this is going to affect them dramatically, very quickly, and it’s going to affect the economy dramatically, very quickly.”
In April, Gerleman filed a lawsuit against his insurance provider, asserting that the coronavirus-induced shutdowns qualified him for a payout under his business interruption and loss of income policy after his claim had been denied. At the same time, Gerleman applied for and received loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. Six Jethro’s corporations received between $150,000 and $350,000 each — the US Small Business Administration did not disclose the exact amounts — and Jethro’s and Jakes Smokehouse Steaks received between $350,000 and $1 million. (Gerleman’s lawyer, Charlie Wittmack, contended in an email to the Informer that “the allegation regarding the April 2020 litigation and the PPP loan are not related.”)
When Governor Kim Reynolds announced that restaurants were allowed to reopen for dine-in service in May, many establishments slowly and cautiously opened their doors. Jethro’s restaurants across central Iowa, as well as Splash Seafood Bar & Grill, opened to serve as many customers as the regulations allowed. On June 18, Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Jambalaya in Waukee announced that an employee had tested positive for coronavirus, stating that the restaurant would “continue to implement their recommendations and are following all safety protocols and guidelines.” The announcement did not, however, commit to closing the restaurant to allow for sanitation for even a short period of time.
After abruptly closing with little notice to employees in March, the Jethro’s BBQ Steak ‘n Chop in Ames reopened in September with the new addition of a game room, just over two weeks after Iowa State University’s fall semester began and as coronavirus cases in the county were reaching a new peak in Story County.
Full disclosure: The editor of this article, Gavin Aronsen, used to work as a prep cook at the Jethro’s BBQ Steak ‘n Chop in Ames but was not involved in the article’s reporting outside of the editing process and was not one of the former employees interviewed for it.
Correction: A previous version of this story included a quote from a former employee about a former manager urinating outside of Splash Seafood Bar & Grill while intoxicated, an incident that the former employee seemingly attributed to Gerleman but later clarified.