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  • Thu August 07 2008
  • Posted Aug 7, 2008
By Kevin Stllman, Community Reporter 08/06/2008 The first time riders heard Bancroft native Paul Bernhard's, "pork chop!" call on RAGBRAI it incurred the wrath of the law. The last time it sounded, it was greeted with thunderous applause. "There are a lot of nice people out there," Bernhard said, describing the throngs that have gathered near his grill each summer for almost three decades. After 28 years of providing a no-frills power lunch for starved cyclists RAGBRAI riders, and Iowa Boy, Chuck Offenburger in particular, couldn't let the man they had come to know as "Mr. Pork Chop" leave the event without a proper sendoff; not after he invented the now ubiquitous Iowa Chop, and certainly not after he had personally greeted - and taken a couple of bucks off of - every cyclist to manhandle a napkin-wrapped-chop between 1979 and 2007. In doing so Bernhard created a lasting legacy, not only for himself, but for a meal many would associate with a good long nap rather than hours of brisk exercise. "(First-time riders) say it's too early in the morning for a pork chop. Then the biker beside them says, 'Oh, you can eat a pork chop and it won't set up on you like pancakes and things like that. It just gives you energy all day long," Bernhard said. "A lot of them get out and ride about 25 and 30 miles to where we are they eat a pork chop and don't have anything else all day until they get to the campground." So, July 21, the third day of riders' 2008 trek across the state, a crowd of satisfied customers, along with representatives of the Des Moines Register, gathered at the Jefferson courthouse to show their appreciation. They presented Bernhard with a photo and towering trophy to compliment all the cash they had left with him during the years. All they wanted in return was to hear his signature sales cry, the same throat-heavy, "Pork! Choooooooopp," that he admits now draws cringes back home in Bancroft, one more time. The celebration was an exclamation point to a series of events that Bernhard admits began almost by accident. Bernhard created the Iowa Chop because he wanted to cut down on food preparation time at state meetings of the Iowa Pork Producers Association. As one of the organizations early members, Bernhard was part of the crew who would arrive early in the morning to begin the all-day process of spitting and roasting a whole hog. Instead, Bernhard proposed cutting a bigger pork chop, up to an inch and a half in thickness. In 1979 he fed the new heartier chops to the first batch of RAGBRAI riders, who just happened to be passing through Bancroft. Business was so brisk that Bernhard told the IPP they should take the show on the road. The Pork producers passed on the idea, but Bernhard decided to take the job on himself. He sold a lot of pork chops, so many that he caught the attention of the law. One day after a morning rain slowed business, the Mr. Pork Chop crew setup shop in a narrow ditch. As the day progressed, the last syllable of his sales call became ever more elongated and the highway space available for riders became ever narrower. "There were so many people stopped that it had come down just to a trickle. They had to get off their bikes and walk them through single file," Bernhard said. "Finally a police came over and yells at me, "Don't you ever do that again!" Iowa pork chops, grilled over corncobs and served with nothing more than a paper towel, became a RAGBRAI tradition, one that eventually outlasted whole-ear corn harvesting and came to be housed in its own customized "Mr. Pork Chop" school bus. One of Bernhard's customers even claims to have eaten a chop every year since 1979. Cycling legend Lance Armstrong even stopped in at least once to power up on Bernhard's signature product; but when he did another star-struck rider politely asked the seven-time Tour de France champion, "Could you step out of the way please? I want to get a picture of Mr. Pork Chop." Bernhard said it has been a pleasure serving all of his customers over the years. From the exhausted young cyclists who would ride up soaked with sweat to the sweet old ladies who would arrive, "Cool as a cucumber," he served them all with a smile on his face, and received more than a few expressions of gratitude along the way. "You'd be surprised how many kisses I get," Bernhard said. "That's one of the benefits." The experience has also benefited from coherence of a close-knit crew. Along with a close group of friends, the crew almost always included one or more of more of Bernhard's relations; six of his 11 children have helped sling pork chops at one time or another. One of those children, Matt Bernhard, took over full-time operating duties for the 2008 ride. "It was a pretty big undertaking," Matt said. "If you don't have to handle all the intricacies, like getting the people together and making sure the bus is ready and getting all of your pork chops ordered, you can think that it just happens." While Paul's one-day appearance was a purely non-working engagement, Matt assumed undertaking of not only feeding thousands of hungry bikers, but the Mr. Pork Chop name, reputation, pink-pig bus and of course the trademark sales call. Even with his work cut out for him Matt managed a successful tour. He not only sold all but a handful of his mounds of pork chops, but he managed a feat Paul hadn't in 28 trips across the state - completing the entire tour of the state without getting a flat. "He mentioned (the flats) before we took off. So, I went to Ruhnke's and had them check out all four tires and the pressure," Matt said. "I made sure it was one more thing that I panned for and checked out beforehand. There might have been a bit of luck involved there too."

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