Pictured: Carrie and Jason Hoeltzel/
Sandwiched between Old Mammoth Road restaurant fixtures Grumpy’s and Roberto’s, CJ’s Grill has quietly built a reputation all its own. CJ’s offers fine American cuisine at a middle range cost, with mouthwatering options ranging from pulled pork sandwiches for lunch, to Cajun chicken and crawfish fettuccini alfredo for dinner, to homemade buttermilk donuts for dessert. Owner Carrie Hoeltzel has made certain that these and more selections, all created in house and from scratch, won’t break the bank account of locals and visitors alike.
This week The Sheet sat down with Hoeltzel, who co-owns CJ’s with husband and head chef Jason Hoeltzel, to chat about the challenges of opening a restaurant in town, and how CJ’s has evolved the balance of fine and affordable dining since its opening in May 2011.
Sheet: So what’s your background in the food industry?
CH: My husband and I have both been in the restaurant business ever since, I always joke, our moms kicked us out the door and said ‘go get a job.’ We’ve been waiting tables or managing restaurants since we both were 15 years old. We moved to Mammoth together about 5 years ago, in 2008, and we were both in food service at the Mountainside Grill.
Sheet: How has CJ’s changed since you first opened? Has the menu developed, or the aesthetic?
CH: Well, our heart has never changed. One of our goals is to fill in that middle niche in town. There’s a lot of diner and cost-effective restaurants like Angel’s and The Stove, and there’s a lot of great fine dining, like Petra’s and Skadi, but there wasn’t much in the middle, or much that was family friendly. We have one son, another on the way, and I’ve definitely been to a restaurant in town where I asked where I could change my baby and they said, ‘You can use the bar.’ Or some restaurants don’t carry high chairs. So we were also happy to put a family restaurant in town. That family heart has never changed. Our menu and what we’re cooking has changed so greatly.
Sheet: How so?
CH: Well you open up, and you need to be smart. We picked a simple menu that was classic and easy to work with. But we now change our menu every season, in minor ways in spring and fall, and drastically summer to winter. For instance, we were serving ribs in the summer that we smoked outside, but we don’t use the smoker this time of year, we’re instead selling stuff like stew that’s very winter oriented. But everything is still homemade, everything is made from scratch, and that’s still the same.
Sheet: And there are gluten free and vegetarian options, as well?
CH: Because our food is homemade, if somebody has any kind of an allergy or special diet, it’s not like I have to go grab a label and say, ‘Well I think this is in it…’ Instead our food is made from scratch, and me being the owner, when I’m on the floor I can tell you every single recipe because I make it all. We can always cater to the allergy-conscious very nicely.
When it comes to vegetarians, I was a vegetarian for 10 years, so it’s definitely something that we try to focus on. The answer for vegetarians isn’t always spaghetti and marinara or a salad. But on the opposite end, we have at least 8 different salads on our menu, so even if you are a vegetarian, you’re not just stuck with a ranch salad. You have some variety.
Sheet: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered, running a business in Mammoth?
CH: Even after working in this town for 5 years and thinking that I knew how bad a May or October could be, it’s worse when you’re an owner. The only plus that we’ve found is that it’s helpful that a lot of restaurants shut down at those times of year. It keeps the rest of us in business. It’s tough because, let’s say there’s 30 restaurants in town, well we probably need about 50 during the holiday weekend, and in May and October we need about 5.
Sheet: Do you offer any kinds of specials during that period?
CH: We have, yes. This spring during the slow time again, we’ll offer early bird specials. Last fall, Mondays became family days, so kids eat free, and that stuck permanently. Tuesday through Friday we had a different meal each night: chicken parmesan, prime rib, quarter chicken and meat loaf. Before 6 o’clock they were $15 for a full meal with a salad. We learned some great things, like the quarter chicken and prime rib made it onto the menu permanently, and chicken parmesan did the same.
Sheet: Sounds like a nice testing ground.
CH: Yeah. We’ll do it again, and it’ll be with different food in the springtime and the fall.
Sheet: Do you also offer holiday specials?
CH: We did a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and we’re doing a prime rib Christmas Eve dinner. We also have pies made to order. Jason has the worst sweet tooth in the world, and his baking is amazing, and it’s only natural at this time of year to dive into making pies. Last year we were still fairly new, so we didn’t get into it. This year, especially with The Stove being closed just before Thanksgiving, there weren’t a lot of pie choices in town. So we said let’s go for it. And over Thanksgiving I made and sold 125 pies. So we were pretty happy that that was a winner.
Sheet: Are there any special pies for Christmastime?
CH: We changed it up; we’re doing pecan pie, cranberry apple pie, and a 3-berry pie. The pecan pie is $15, and all other pies are $12.
Sheet: I assume they’re already selling fast.
CH: We definitely recommend you make your order at least 24 hours in advance.
CJ’s Grill is open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m. for lunch and dinner, and on Sundays 9:30-noon for breakfast. For reservations, call 760.934.3077, or visit cjsgrillmammoth.com/.