A&E

Hold the sauce: Armadillo Willy's marks 30 years

Palo Altan founded the chain to bring real Texas-style BBQ to the Bay Area

The outside of the meat is a darkened, almost black hue, the moisture making it glisten in the light. The rib is still hot from the wood-fired pit, and not a drop of sauce has touched it. For 30 years Armadillo Willy's has served Texas-style barbecue like this to customers in the Bay Area, beginning with the original location in Cupertino and expanding to eight restaurants, from Dublin to San Mateo to San Jose.

John Berwald, the founder and chairman of the board for Armadillo Willy's, was the visionary behind the restaurant. Born in San Francisco and raised in Palo Alto during the 1950s and 1960s, Berwald attended Cubberley High School before going to work as a beer-tender at the Boardwalk restaurant on El Camino Real in Los Altos. It was there that he began to learn about the restaurant business and gained his first promotion, if somewhat unexpectedly.

"Something happened to one of the managers, so they promoted me to manager," Berwald said. "It was like, 'Here's the key, you're manager.' You know, no training whatsoever. The next couple of years I worked there and learned a little bit about the restaurant business."

After a few years Berwald decided that he wanted to make his own way, and in 1977 he opened St. John's Bar & Grill in Sunnyvale with friend John Carroll. While St. John's was (and is) a successful business, the opening of a second St. John's location brought packed lunches and empty evenings that were spent, Berwald said, "twiddling our thumbs." In order to spur on business, Berwald and Carroll tried all manner of nightly specials, from crab feeds to pasta nights. Only one special stood out as a hit: the barbecue night.

"We did ribs and chicken. All we did was bake it," Berwald said. "We would bake the barbecue and put barbecue sauce on it, you know, a couple of California guys; we didn't know what we were doing."

The popularity of the barbecue nights led Berwald and Carroll to contemplate the idea of opening a separate restaurant. But neither men could provide the credit needed for a bank loan to start the business. They teamed up with friends and local restaurateurs Skip Palmer and Bill Bradford, who had opened the first Burger King in San Jose and ran multiple Burger Kings in the 1970s. With the funding secured and the vision within reach, Berwald and Carroll decided to first fly to Texas to try "real" barbecue.

Over the course of a week in 1982 the two men drove through the heart of barbecue country, from Dallas to Fort Worth, Waco to Taylor, Elgin to Lockhart, and Austin to San Antonio, all the while trying barbecue wherever they came across it.

"We ... ate at 15, 20 barbecue places a day for a week, literally," Berwald said. "We'd go in and just order the smallest portion of ribs or brisket or whatever it was that we could get. And we'd taste it, talk about it and make notes, and go on to the next place. The next place might be across the street because usually there's four barbecue places on every corner. So we soon found out we had no idea what barbecue was, coming from California."

The men also discovered how Texans slow-cooked the meat over a wood-burning pit, which gave the meat the blackened, juicy outer layer, or "bark," that holds the barbecue flavor while retaining the moisture of the meat. The meat would be started the night before and cook for anywhere from four to six hours for ribs to 16 to 18 hours for brisket. This cooking meant that barbecue sauce was provided as an afterthought rather than as a central aspect of the meat.

"People in California don't really understand what barbecue is," Berwald said. "I joke that barbecue in California is that you douse your Weber grill with a bunch of lighter fluid and get a thousand-degree fire going and burn your cheeseburger in five minutes. What we chose to do after learning about barbecue, Southern-style barbecue with authentic wood burning pits, (is that) we cook our briskets overnight for 16 to 18 hours."

The slow-cooking is important for another aspect, what Berwald calls "pit-to-plate," his philosophy that the meat should leave the pit only when it is to be eaten. "As soon as you take meat out of the pit it deteriorates," he said. "It's losing the texture in the bark; it even loses the smoke ring and its moisture."

Berwald says he wants to bring the experience of good barbecue to his customers. But Armadillo Willy's has become more than just a place to get ribs. Over the years Berwald has reached out to the community, sponsoring fundraisers for local causes. To celebrate the 30th anniversary, Berwald organized an Oct. 6 birthday BBQ party in San Jose, a fundraiser for the Rotary Playgarden in San Jose. Proceeds went toward the project, which aims to provide a park equipped for the more than 46,000 special-needs kids in Santa Clara County. It is this type of generosity that has ingratiated Berwald and his restaurants with their employees and the community.

Christy Burris is one such employee. She has worked at Armadillo Willy's for 16 years, spending the last eight years at the Los Altos location as the general manager. She affectionately calls Berwald "Mr. B," and said that she feels like a member of an extended family.

"It's home here to me," Burris said. "The main office is behind us and they (the owners) come in every day. They're just really nice people. It's not like, 'Oh my gosh, someone from corporate is coming in,' you know, you're scared to death. It's like, 'Hey, how are you doing today?'"

It is this type of personal relationship that brought Bob Deagen back to Armadillo Willy's. Deagen was Berwald's first employee at St. John's when it opened in 1977, and stayed on with Armadillo Willy's until 1985, when he left the company to start his own restaurants in Sacramento. The two men kept in touch and in 1999 Berwald asked Deagen to come back as president and CEO. Deagen accepted, one of the reasons being the culture that surrounds the company and Berwald.

"It has a longstanding and positive culture," Deagen said. "The base of our employees is very loyal and we've had them around for a long time. So I think that comes through. ... You can feel that a bit when you walk through the door."

Deagen was also attracted to Berwald's commitment to giving back.

"This starts with John, from years back. He wanted to really stay close to the community," Deagen said. "I think everyone says that, but if you do it (is another matter). We've done a lot of that throughout the years and I think that's connected us to the community."

Info: The local Armadillo Willy's is at 1031 N. San Antonio Road in Los Altos. Call 650-941-2922 or go to armadillowillys.com.

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