Jason Bernhardt: Salting Away Fate

Jason Bernhardt: Salting Away Fate
By Newbear Lesniewski

Peanut butter. And jelly. Macaroni. And cheese. Chips. And salsa.

Salt. And pepper. Central New York.

Potatoes, that is.

“The origin of salt potatoes really comes down to one of the monikers for Syracuse: ‘Salt City’. This has always been a region with a lot of salt, and local salt mining dates back to the 19th century. A long time ago, somebody decided to cook potatoes in salt water and it became a local delicacy,” Jason said.

Bite-size. With a salt crust. To be dipped in butter.

Just delicious.

Like Oklahoma’s cattle or Seattle’s water access, these little potatoes have taken on a “chicken or egg” regional identity. And if you think the great pizza debate that rages from Chicago to New York City - or the saucy discourse behind BBQ from Kansas City to the Carolinas - is the best argument out there, Central New York is prepared to double down.

“One of the biggest local grocery chains, Wegmans, branded their own salt potatoes. Every other store carries non-Wegmans. Hinerwadel’s is what we’ll be serving. Those two have a local competition, and the region really enjoys the rivalry,” he said.

What makes this argument so much fun? Individual taste buds. Because let’s face it: salt is salt. Water is water. And real butter is real butter.

The difference between these branded and boiled ‘taters is smaller than Coke vs. Pepsi.

But to Jason, this week is bigger than anything.

“It means everything! I gave up my day job to pursue this dream and build a business and an industry. It’s the first big step for myself and my business partner, Sean Sauda, after more than a year of sweat equity,” he said.

Egos and livelihoods aside...

“We want to build something that’s bigger than ourselves. ‘Wild Carp Week’ may be our idea, but the tackle and bait sales that go with this kind of event and the tourism interest and energy generated by having other great companies and competitors associated with it will be great for the entire region,” he said.

Combine the thrill of the chase with that aforementioned sweat equity. Then toss your line out into the stream of competitive eating with the precision of a time-honored local delicacy and the promise of a new world record.

Enter: the likes of Joey Chestnut, Pat Bertoletti, Bob Shoudt and Eater X.

“We’re excited, thrilled and honored to have salt potatoes recognized on the national level. The prestige of Major League Eating combined with the level of competition and our pride in the product has been a flabbergasting experience,” he said.

And to think: the real angling hasn’t even begun!

Saturday, May 14, marks the 5th anniversary of this great tournament. Need a little measurement of greatness around those words of hyperbole? Jason will see your skepticism and raise you four years and 112 thousand pounds of carp, catch-and-release.

“It’s a feat unmatched by any other carp venue on the planet,” he said.

Another bold statement from a man making his case for carp angling in the United States. Globally, carp has become a multibillion dollar industry, with Asia, Europe and South America leading the charge.

In America, carp as a delicacy remains a dish swimming perpetually upstream.

“It’s an abundant resource, obviously proven overseas. But our country hasn’t tapped into it just yet. This kind of event makes Central New York the front-runner to be the head cheerleader for the U.S. carp movement. We want to do for carp what Ray Scott did for bass,” he said.

But Jason still needed to create a heightened sense of awareness around everything the region has to offer.

Some locals say it’s the big flakes that fall - and the snowmobiling that quickly follows - during winter. Others believe in the warm-blanket-joy of summertime - and their affinity for jet skis that flood a litany of lakes.

This upcoming week in May now provides Central New York with a worldwide showcase.

“If we put on some small tournament that only lasted a couple of days, that wouldn’t even be worth the 12-hour flight. So this is a whole week’s worth of events - five carp tournaments in seven days! There’s prize money, the chance to compete against great American anglers, and now, the opportunity to witness a world record,” he said.

Much of this week is owed to chasing a dream. Everything the event represents can be wrapped up in everything the region means to Jason.

“My father’s company - JGB Enterprises - has been in Central New York for over 35 years. This is our home - our community. We’re a tight-knit family and we’re never going to leave,” he said.

Much of this week is owed to right-place, right-time. Everything the event has become can be traced to a vacation in West Palm Beach.

“My parents take their winters down there and they’d seen the guys in the corn beef competition the past two years. So my father was instrumental in making this event awesome. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it weren’t for him,” he said.

But Jason knows a thing or two about fate himself.

After all: none other than Steve Bartman took him to his first Cubs game.