Without RAGBRAI, Mr. Pork Chop vendor says he’ll have to ‘tighten the belt’ this year

Matt Bernhard, owner of "Mr. Pork Chop," said there's little federal aid he can access to help him cope with the financial losses of RAGBRAI being canceled this year. (Photo submitted by Matt Bernhard)

Matt Bernhard’s pink bus and smoky grills typically lure in RAGBRAI cyclists to his pork chops and acreage full of shade.

But this year, he’s been racking his brain, trying to figure out where he can sell the pork chops he already had cut up in anticipation of the annual bike ride across the state.

Like other Iowa businesses, Bernhard, aka “Pork Chop Jr.,” has fallen victim to the economic consequences of COVID-19.

RAGBRAI organizers announced April 20 they were canceling the ride due to the virus. The ride typically draws more than 10,000 cyclists from around the world.

“This COVID thing just slams everything,” Bernhard said. “I just don’t know what I can do different than just let it happen.”

For decades, Matt Bernhard and his late father, Paul Bernhard, have been RAGBRAI staples, drawing in fans who want to take pictures and hear the yells of “pork choooop.”

Before organizers announced the ride’s cancellation, Bernhard said he had already scoped out the route and found sites for his grills. He purchased a new bus after the old one wore out.

Then COVID-19 hit Iowa. He stopped cutting pork chops in anticipation of the worst news happening. Like a plethora of other beloved summer events, RAGBRAI was eventually canceled.

“It was going to be a great year for me,” Bernhard said. “Most people don’t understand it’s hard to get corn cobs and it’s hard to get the sites and have all your things lined up that you’re going to need.”

In the fall and spring, Bernhard works at a crop management business in Bancroft, but for his summer income, he fires up the grills.

While businesses can apply for a federal loan through the Paycheck Protection Program to aid them through the pandemic, Bernhard only hires people to work the week of RAGBRAI. To qualify for loan redemption, 60% of the funds need to go toward payroll.

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to get much if anything from them,” Bernhard said.

For now, Bernhard said he will try to find events where he can sell the pork chops he has on hand. But working a one-day event comes with its own financial hardships because he’s not assured he will make enough sales to cover travel costs.

While he looks for fairs and other events across the state to attend, for now, he plans on looking forward to the next RAGBRAI.

“This COVID thing, every direction you go, it just screws you,” Bernhard said. “I’ll just have to tighten the belt and pick up a gig here or there.”

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.