Elizabeth restaurateur charts new path after loss

BJ Hutchinson closes beloved Bernie's Kitchen following son’s death by suicide

Bettijo Laverne Hutchinson, better known as BJ, is not an imposing person. She is petite and her brown eyes are full of kindness and empathy. Even so, you can tell she is full of tenacity, grit and industriousness. BJ’s middle name came from her Grandma, even though ironically her grandma went by Bernie.
BJ and her family have consistently worked in the restaurant industry. BJ’s mom, Stephanie Knuth, has worked in restaurants for 46 years. BJ’s Aunt, lovingly nicknamed “Aunt Mom,” has always worked as a baker and cook.
When BJ was 10, she got a job in the restaurant her mom worked in. For each night of washing dishes, she made $20 and “all the Shirley Temples she could drink.” She got hooked on restaurants then and there.
At 14, she started waiting tables. At 16, she became a manager. At the same age, BJ became pregnant with her first son, Nikolas. She had trouble sleeping through the night so she figured she might as well work anyway and picked up the graveyard shift at her restaurant. At 4-foot-11, BJ’s pregnant belly stuck out so far that it looked like she’d give birth any minute. She remembers a group of paramedics nervously dining, watching in case she went into labor.
Soon, her little family would grow to include three sons.
While working two jobs and raising three boys, BJ carved out time to go to college. She earned a degree in early childhood development by attending classes after her shifts working at South Side Food & Drink in Limon.
Like many, BJ had a lifelong dream of owning her own restaurant, but she never thought it was a real possibility. Then, on Aug. 6, 2017 came the night she flipped on the “Open” sign for the first time at Bernie’s Kitchen, an Elizabeth restaurant named for her grandmother.
BJ will be the first to acknowledge how difficult opening a restaurant is. “It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” she said. “Opening a restaurant has the lowest profit margin for a business owner. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done since having children.”
The location on Highway 86 was supposedly cursed. Before Bernie’s, Botana Junction was there for 24 years, Wing Nutz for three, and Route 86 for three months. Some community members even told BJ to her face that Bernie’s wouldn’t succeed, warning “You know it’s cursed, you’re not gonna last.”
But Bernie’s did last. BJ’s restaurant became a success. And now BJ is looking to sell it.

Family tragedy

The only reason BJ is selling her business is because her middle son, Krisstoffer — known as Kris — died by suicide a few months ago. After some starts and stops, and a move across the country, Kris had moved back home and was working at Bernie’s. He and BJ were very close and did everything together. Kris was BJ’s “person.”
BJ called Kris a “modern hippie” because he was always on an adventure. “There’s more to life,” he’d remind her. He wasn’t afraid of enjoying life’s detours or taking a chance.
Kris expressed himself through music and played the flute and ukulele. He attended at least one concert a month and listened to music all the time, usually all through the night.
Despite previously attempting suicide, Kris’ death was still sudden and shocking. The day before he passed he was goofing off with his brothers and singing like normal, bringing joy and levity to everyone around him. Nothing seemed off but, as BJ said, “you just never know.”
Before his death, Kris got a tattoo of a music staff surrounded by a rainbow. He hoped BJ would get a matching one so it could be “their” tattoo. BJ ended up getting it to remember him by.
Suddenly the all-consuming work of owning her own restaurant didn’t seem worthwhile anymore. Owning a restaurant isn’t a 9-to-5 job — it’s all day, every day. BJ explained, “It’s more than a restaurant, it’s my life.”
“Life is so short,” BJ lamented. She wants to live life and spend more time with her children and family. “A restaurant consumes a lot of your life. I just want to simplify my life for my children.”

Next stop, Tennessee

BJ is planning on moving outside of Nashville, Tennessee to open up a food truck specializing in barbecue. “My passion is cooking and my passion is people,” BJ said, but a food truck will offer more flexibility than a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. “If you want to close for a week, you can do that. If you want to work four days a week and fish for three, you can.”
BJ is also hoping to spend some time getting to know who she is. “I don’t know what my hobbies are,” she shrugged. She’s hoping she can find time for fishing, traveling and experiencing new foods. A self-proclaimed foodie, BJ wants to travel using food destinations as her guide.
BJ’s primary concern has always been caring for the customers and the community. She has a strong instinct to nurture and care for those around her, so much so that some call her the “Mom of Elbert County.” She’s hoping a new owner will carry on that good work.
Brett Mecham, a friend of BJ’s, says “Bernie’s Kitchen has always been there for the community! BJ is such a great supporter, whether for families in need or fundraisers held by local nonprofits.” Mecham, who works with Dads of Elbert County, says BJ supports the organization whenever needed, with a smile and open tables. BJ and Bernie’s Kitchen will be missed.
Aug. 27 was the last day for Bernie’s Kitchen. A buyer was in place with plans to open a new restaurant on Sept. 1, but things have since changed. Now the business and the entire kitchen is back on the market; contact BJ at bernieskitchen80107@gmail.com for pricing and specific information.

Help in fight against suicide

From 2020-2022, Elbert County recorded five deaths by suicide, all of whom were male. According to the Colorado Vital Statistics Program, frontier and rural communities have the highest rates of suicide.
If you or someone you love is struggling with thoughts of suicide, the Elbert County Health Department recommends two resources.
One is Kristi Grothe from the Centennial Mental Health Center, who can be reached at 303-646-4519.
The other is the Colorado Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Office of Suicide Prevention, which has three ways to help — phone at 1-844-493-TALK, text ‘TEXT’ to 38255, or chat at coloradocrisisservices.org.
Just dialing 988 will put you immediately in touch with help from the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
BJ personally recommends the Second Wind Fund based in Denver. The Second Wind Fund supports youth at risk for suicide and matches children and youth with licensed therapists. For information, go to thesecondwindfund.org.
BJ Hutchinson, Bernie's Kitchen, Krisstoffer, Kris, Bettijo, Elizabeth, Elbert County, Colorado


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