GRND SQRL: For the Love of Good Eats, Rad Beer, and Great Desert Vibes
By Ed Heethuis
By Ed Heethuis
When Mike Usher first envisioned opening a beer-centric gastropub in Twentynine Palms, it didn’t come without trepidation. So I’ll let him tell the story.
“There had to be a reason why something like GRND SQRL didn’t exist in this area. There had to be a reason why there was no great beer out here, so l had to dive into what it might be and figure out the reason.” While continuing to search for answers, he arrived at the end of a pretty extensive business plan and still couldn’t find the anticipated red flag. As a result, he and his wife, Liz, started really focusing on the GRND SQRL concept in the middle of January 2020 and they signed a lease for their new space three months later. While beer culture in Twentynine Palms typically resembles the desert in which it resides, they counted on the fact that there were enough people who would appreciate great food and quality beer to make their concept work. Thankfully, that belief has held true thus far.
With a remarkable beer program as a cornerstone, Mike began the pursuit of an executive chef. A well-stocked keg box and beer cooler are a wonderful building block, but without an outstanding food program, the chances of success were virtually nil. “We figured that we would start with smash burgers and wings,” opined Mike, and he humbly continued, “It was kismet that the universe connected us with the chef that we found. His name is Joel Pettersson and to be honest, he’s more talented than we deserve”.
Joel Pettersson arrived on the scene as a teenage Swedish foreign exchange student assigned to the Morongo Basin. While he and Mike graduated from high school at the same time, they never encountered each other during those early years. Mike went to Twentynine Palms High School and although Joel was supposed to attend the same campus, he ended up at Yucca High School instead. Joel met his wife Lenna while attending Yucca High and after graduation he brought her back to Sweden while he attended culinary school in Copenhagen. One of his first stops after college was the Michelin 2-Star Restaurant, Aquavit, an upscale Swedish restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. He then bopped around the boroughs for several years, including a stop at Dean & DeLuca, while continuously honing his craft.
After moving with Lenna to Los Angeles about three years ago, Joel worked as Lead Chef in several high-profile places until Covid shut everything down in the Spring of 2020. As fate would have it, they were gifted with the arrival of their first daughter almost simultaneously. Since Lenna’s family still lived in Joshua Tree, the decision was made to leave LA and head back to the high desert where they landed in March of 2020. Joel, searching for something a little less gnarly than a typical L.A. head chef schedule, began to research opportunities in the basin.
Mike picks up the story in earnest, “In April we put out word that we were looking for an executive chef and Joel was our first applicant. I had to send his resume out to a couple of buddies in L.A. restaurants asking them if they knew this dude. Word soon came back that this guy was definitely legit, although they had no idea what he was doing way out in the desert. In the beginning we really thought we were being pranked because there is no way that a chef of this caliber was just sitting around Twentynine Palms or the local area. We met with him, and it turns out he’s a homebrewer and an absolute beer geek. He enjoys doing the same things with beer that we like to do. It’s just been a perfect partnership so far, because the menu that we have created together is exactly what we hoped to eventually create years from now. And for him, if he opened his own place, he would want the front of house beer program to be exactly what we have been able to create.”
“We spent the entire summer planning and needed a menu that is very efficient. We knew we wanted to make everything from scratch and Joel was completely on board. We aspired to prepare all ingredients in-house and have everything thoughtfully crafted. The general idea is that we wanted something for everyone on our regular menu; an opportunity we felt was missing in Twentynine Palms. Good wings are a necessity, a good burger that we grind in-house is requisite, and let’s offer a few vegan options that taste good enough that even a non-vegan would enjoy. We didn’t want to do just a generic black bean-chickpea patty, and chef had a falafel sandwich he’s loved since childhood, so the Jalla was born.”
From a product development standpoint, “There was a lot of taste testing and tweaking this summer; the resulting product and the quality of everything has just been even better than imagined. The initial menu is petite, but that allows us to feature weekly or bi-weekly specials to give our guests a reason to keep coming back. The fun began with a rotating soup every week during the winter and every now and then I’ll throw entrée options out at Joel. Two weeks later, he has developed the perfect answer and has the ingredient logistics all worked out. We are very thoughtful about how we approach the menu and thus far it’s performing very well. Just know we will always be improving and tweaking things.”
To compliment the cuisine, the GRND SQRL beer list is bursting with both quality and selection. This is where Mike’s many years of experience in the San Diego beer scene begin to shine. His beer roots run deep; when he started in beer, he was on the opening crew at Ballast Point in Miramar and later assisted in the opening of the vaunted North Park Brewing. He poured at North Park for three years before returning to the Hi-Desert and proudly states, “It’s cool to have North Park Beer Company cans that are three days fresh all the way up here in Twentynine Palms. I’m very happy that they have been part of my beer journey because it’s not only a cool spot, but the people are great and the beer is top notch.”
His voice quickens as he explains, “Ballast Point is where I actually met Liz, as we were both part of the original crew. She left that side of the business to write a beer blog for the San Diego Union Tribune and was also doing lifestyle pieces for them and Pacific Magazine. When I started at Ballast Point, I was in grad school to be a teacher. Upon completing my teaching credential and master’s degree, that was when I went over to North Park. I used to teach middle school during the week and then pour at North Park on the weekends. Throughout that period, we lived about a block away from Pizza Port in Ocean Beach, so we were surrounded by great beer and immersed in the industry.”
For the Ushers, coming up with a name for their location was one of the easiest parts of the endeavor. Mike’s eyes lit up as he continued, “There is a double meaning behind the name. Liz is from San Diego and therefore not a desert person. When we first moved back here we were driving down the road and a ground squirrel ran across the street. I exclaimed, ‘Oh wow, a ground squirrel!’ since I hadn’t seen one in years. Liz was like, ‘What’s a ground squirrel?’ After looking them up she decided they were kinda cute.”
“We talked in the past about opening a bar or restaurant at some point in time. Something we noticed early on was that with most of our favorite San Diego bars, you could never really tell what they were simply by hearing the name. San Diego’s iconic places have names like Toronado, Tiger!Tiger!, and Live Wire. The moniker doesn’t exactly describe what they are until you walk in the door and discover it for yourself. Five years ago, Liz said that if we ever opened our own place, GRND SQRL would be a fantastic name. Fast forward to last year, when I brought the idea of opening our own place in Twentynine Palms, I had already pretty much finished up the business plan and she was super supportive. Her enthusiastic response was, “We’re calling it GRND SQRL, right?” Funny thing is, we hadn’t discussed the squirrel event since that fateful day on the road five years prior.”
When asked about the current clientele, Mike looked around at all the busy tables surrounding us and replied, “GRND SQRL has a really good mix of customers thus far. Certainly, with me being home-grown, we’ve had a lot of great local support. People are figuring out where we are and the reviews have been super positive. Those reviews are our lifeblood since tourists and other potential new guests are using Google and/or Yelp to see what to expect before dining out. Accurate and thoughtful reviews tell us when we are on track or where we may have slightly missed the mark. We are getting more and more of that tourist population through the front door every week, so it’s been good.”
“From an entertainment standpoint, we’ve been doing an open mic night here on Wednesday and have a talented core of local comedians who attend. We have three or four musical acts every week and experimented with some spoken word. We do live music on Friday and Saturday; our regular Friday night guy played at the Twentynine Palms Inn for five or six years and sets a great vibe. Trivia has been added to Thursday nights, so we are quite busy from Wednesday through Saturday.”
After purchasing my GRND SQRL beanies, Mike thought our time together was over. I was having no part of that and reminded him I was still missing the second half of the double meaning behind their unique name. “Oh yeah” he replied with a grin, “the other side of the GRND SQRL naming story is that we consider ourselves to be underground desert rats, just like ground squirrels. We’ve created a place where local desert rats gather…that they can call home. It’s crazy how many little squirrel tokens and squirrel statues and stuff people have gifted us. Liz and I joke about what a great feeling it is referring to ourselves as King and Queen Squirrel and we really love seeing guests experience the magic this team has created. It’s then that we know we are around our people.”
GRND SQRL is located at 73471 29 Palms Highway in Twentynine Palms. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram for updates and special events.