LARAMIE — Foodies can’t seem to get enough of Laramie as Food Network megastar Guy Fieri dug into two more local gems for an episode of his hit series “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” which aired March 18.
Featured was Sweet Melissa Café, a vegetarian eatery Fieri called “a righteous vegetarian spot,” and Born in a Barn, a local joint that takes wings and burgers up a few notches.
For Clayton Scholl, co-owner of Born in a Barn, earning that national recognition was the result of years of hard work, with a bit of luck mixed in. The show aired the day after Saint Patrick’s Day, which also was the nine-year anniversary of the restaurant’s opening day.
“This is the mountaintop (for) any restaurant owner,” Scholl said, adding that his love of the show, also known to fans as “Triple D,” inspired him to open a restaurant in the first place.
Before joining the restaurant game, Scholl worked at Cathedral Home for Children, a local youth and family resource center. This would be the place he met his wife, Stacey, and his business partner, Jessie Reece.
Reece’s culinary background helped the pair get started, but the first two years were fraught with challenges as they explored how to run a functioning restaurant.
“It was a nightmare,” Scholl said. “It’s a night-and-day difference (now) from when we opened.”
Before the smell of juicy burgers and wings wafted from the kitchen, the air in Born in a Barn was thick with smoke and grease coming from a malfunctioning hood ventilation system.
Scholl cashed out his retirement savings and used his pickup truck as collateral for loans to open the restaurant. The pair worked every day, open to close, for two years without seeing a profit.
“Our regulars basically paid our utility bills,” Scholl said. “If it wasn’t for those guys, we wouldn’t be open.”
One such customer is Trent Brome, who loved the concept so much he wanted to be a part of Born in a Barn. Brome bought into the restaurant and used his experience to help with the business side of the eatery.
Today, Born in a Barn’s creative menu and the incorporation of fresh ingredients in every dish — in addition to some updated equipment — is the key to its success.
For Scholl, the best part of the job is the people he’s met across the bar and behind it.
“This whole thing is not just because of me,” Scholl said, adding that “90% of the credit goes to the employees. I want these guys to understand that it’s because of them.”
Employees and friends gathered at the restaurant to celebrate the premiere of their episode. The bar was teeming with laughter and conversation, but when Fieri came on, the crowd went quiet with the exception of frequent applause.
“It was hectic and exciting,” employee Taylor Ojeda said of the filming process. “It just felt like we made it.”
Just down the street, the crowd at Sweet Melissa Café was gathered around a screen of their own.
Customers cheered when the restaurant came on. Many featured as customers on the show were watching March 18 — even those who didn’t make the final cut.
“When we got the call we thought this was some sort of scam or something,” said Melissa Murphy, owner of the restaurant that opened in 1999. “It’s been a really fun thing for all of Laramie.”
Saying he’s getting more calls from viewers to feature vegetarian restaurants, Fieri said Sweet Melissa brings legitimate flavor. He stood next to Murphy as she made two of her most popular dishes — lentil loaf and a veggie banh mi stuffed with marinated seitan, a meat substitute.
“The seitan is delicious and it takes on the flavor (of the banh mi sauce) very well,” Fieri said.
But it was the coconut rice and black bean side dish that blew him away.
“Where has this been all my life?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s delicious.”
He also gave Murphy props for the lentil loaf, which he called a nice substitute for meatloaf.
“I get mental for the lentil,” he joked, then comparing the dish to “the most tender, moist meatloaf you could find. I love the little crust you put on it (with the flattop).”
At Born in a Barn, Reece cooked up a pair of the joint’s mainstays — the popper burger and barnchos.
The double-patty burger built up with the flavors of an upscale jalapeno popper drew a “Well done, my friend,” from the host, while a customer called it “one of the things that I crave.”
It was the barnchos that got Fieri and the crowd in the restaurant smiling and crunching. The base of house-made potato chips (which take more than a day to perfect) caught Fieri’s attention.
“Those are some of the crunchiest potato chips I’ve ever had in my life,” he said, adding the unique nachos “are legit. Shut the front door, back door, shut the barn door.”
Being featured on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” came with a warning for Laramie restaurant owners: prepare to be busy.
The staff at J’s Prairie Rose, which was featured last week, is already noticing an uptick in popularity.
“It’s still surreal,” owner Jason Eickbush said about the national exposure. “It’s something you don’t think of happening. Laramie’s a small town, and it’s a really unique experience for us to have this here.”
While it’s too soon to know if the extra crowds are because of the show or not, Eickbush is happy for the experience.
“A lot of people are really proud of it, and we are too,” he said.