Pickle Jar going year-round in old Layla’s spot

September 25, 2018
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Pickle Jar's Bama brisket sandwich.

Pickle Jar, the food cart, is getting a restaurant location that will allow its owners to work year-round.

“Normally during the winter we have to kind of shut down the cart and find other jobs,” said John Pickle, who’s in his fourth season of running the Capitol Square cart with his wife, Jennifer St. Cyr.

The couple is currently remodeling the small restaurant space at 141 S. Butler St., that was formerly Layla’s Persian Food and then briefly Ruthie’s.

“This will be the opportunity for me to continue my menu throughout the winter and hopefully build it into a nice little restaurant spot,” Pickle said, noting that his wife likes to joke that the new location is a stationary food cart because it only seats about 20 people inside. In good weather they’ll be able to seat another 20 people outside.

Right now they’re having work done on the floor, ceiling and walls, and getting new lighting, he said. They hope to open by Nov. 1.

The cart’s No. 1 seller by far is its southern-style pulled pork sandwich, but Pickle said he’s not sure if they’ll offer it in the restaurant. They’re still working to finalize the restaurant’s menu. It won’t be exactly the same as the cart’s.

One thing that’s definitely going to stay is the whiskey chili -- especially through winter. “That chili keeps people warm,” Pickle said.

Pickle and St. Cyr describe their food as “new American Southern with a Wisconsin flair.” He specializes in southeastern-style barbecue and southwestern-style Tex-Mex, he said.

The Bama brisket, as in Alabama style, is a fan favorite, especially among their employees, Pickle said. That’s staying on the menu for sure, but, like the pulled pork sandwich, the fate of the smoked chicken sandwich is uncertain.

Those items are always on the cart’s menu, and will stay there, along with a couple of vegetarian options and some southwestern specials, including a barbecue quesadilla that has a big following.

Pickle and St. Cyr are unsure if they’ll keep the food cart going after the restaurant opens. Whether they’ll be able to keep their weekday lunch location next to the Walgreens on the Capitol Square depends on this fall’s annual food cart judging results.

And Pickle knows it’s not a given that they’ll be able to keep the spot they’ve had since late in their first season.

The cart, he said, is a good way to keep the Pickle Jar name out there and has been a helpful catering tool. They’ve got a couple of weddings booked for next year, which Pickle said seems to be a trend. It’s not unusual for brides and grooms to cater their events with food cart food.

Something unique to the Butler Street spot will be a breakfast menu. The restaurant, which will either be called Pickle Jar Cafe or Pickle Jar’s Hole in the Wall, will start with breakfast and lunch and some pop up dinners.

Pickle said he’s interested in “passable dinners,” where all the tables are pushed together and guests pass food around like a holiday meal.

The couple’s goal has always been to have their own restaurant. They started the cart because it was a “lower entry point” to let them figure out the right menu and how they wanted to portray their food, Pickle said.

Pickle is going to keep his 7-foot smoker at Christine’s Kitchens, 2817 E. Washington Ave., a shared kitchen space for Slide, Pickle Jar and several other food carts. The smoker won’t fit in the new restaurant.

While Pickle is responsible for the smoked meats, cakes and pies, St. Cyr developed most of the side dishes like collard greens and coleslaw.

Pickle, who grew up in Kansas, started cooking while in college at Kansas State. A Tex-Mex restaurant there had the biggest influence on him. For about 15 years after college, he learned how to run restaurants by working management jobs at Olive Garden, Bob Evans and Holiday Inn.

“My wife just is a lover of really good food,” he said.

Now Pickle’s inspiration comes from the farm-to-table movement and he tries to buy local, free-range, hormone-free and humanely-raised meats.

Because of his cart’s name, he’s occasionally mistaken for a pickle vendor. Even though he and St. Cyr pickle cucumbers other vegetables for sandwich toppings, “we just don’t sell them individually,” Pickle said.

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