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About Utah: Taggart's Grill — Everybody's secret

MORGAN — What do you get when you put a cafe at the bottom of a remote freeway offramp, six miles from the nearest town and 30 to 50 miles from the population centers of the Wasatch Front?

Other than one of Utah’s most successful restaurants, not a whole lot.

Want improbable? What head-scratching? Want one of the tastiest slices of cheesecake this side of Eileen’s? Drive to Weber Canyon on the I-84 freeway, make your way to Exit No. 108, the one marked Taggart, pull off, and Taggart’s Grill will be the first business you’ll run into. In fact, it will be the only business you’ll run into.

In all, there are about a dozen houses and cabins in Taggart, a place so nondescript it doesn’t even make it onto the list of Utah’s unincorporated towns. Across the street is the Weber River and the Devil’s Slide. Six miles to the east is Henefer (pop. 814), and six miles to the west is Morgan (pop. 3,903).

It makes no sense that a restaurant should thrive in such a spot, a view shared, not incidentally, by Kelsea Tuttle, whose personal assessment is, “It’s nuts.”

And she owns the place.

“Oh yeah, I’m continually surprised,” she says of Taggart’s staying power. “We’re tucked away in this tiny little exit, and we get regulars from Evanston to Brigham City and all places in between.”

The draw, she suggests, is the very thing that looks so insurmountable on paper: being in the sticks.

“Everybody thinks this is their special little place,” Kelsea says. “Their own little hideaway.”

So they drive until they get here. One couple, an elderly husband and wife from North Ogden, comes every Thursday between 2:30 and 3 p.m. and orders the same thing every time.

The menu is as one-of-a-kind as the location, ranging from burgers, steaks, sandwiches to Mexican, gluten-free and vegetarian options and a Taggart pizza variation on pita bread called Pit’za. Reservations are not accepted, although you can call from your cellphone when you get within 30 minutes of Exit 108 to secure your place in line.

Everything is made from scratch, including the pastries that make up the dessert menu, which may be the real opiate that keeps the cars coming. Early every morning, Kelsea’s mom, Lori, bakes her cheesecakes, chocolate mousse cakes, brownies, cookies, carrot cakes and sugar cookies and arranges them in the display case out front. Every night, they’re mostly gone.

“Mom is a really great baker,” gushes Kelsea, who adds with a go-figure grin, “and she hates sweets.”

There wouldn’t be a Taggart’s Grill, let alone the legendary baked items, without Kelsea’s mom and dad.

Kelsea was a 19-year-old cook at Taggart’s in 2004 when the original owner, Elain Stoddard, announced she planned to retire and move to southern Utah.

Stoddard had opened Taggart’s in 1996 when she bought a tiny closed-down building — a shell of a one-time gas station — just off Exit 108 and turned it into a convenience store servicing fishers, tourists looking at Devil’s Slide and river runners out of the Weber just across the highway.

The convenience store morphed into a restaurant, which is when Kelsea came on the scene, hiring on as a cook in 2002, the year she graduated from nearby Morgan High School.

Kelsea worked at Taggart’s while she took classes at Weber State University, planning to be a veterinarian.

But the little down-home restaurant, and the attention Stoddard paid to her in helping her learn the ropes, grabbed her. “It felt more like a family than a business,” she says.

When Stoddard said she was looking to sell, Kelsea went to her parents, Steve and Lori, to see if they might be interested in buying.

“Let’s do it,” said her dad, a management consultant for UPS, and her mom, a day-trader.

Kelsea’s brother, Berk, joined the team, and Taggart’s has been a family enterprise ever since. Under the Tuttles' management, they’ve added a front porch, outdoor seating in the back, a rock wall, a fireplace, and a family of peacocks that live on the premises and keep the neighboring snake population in check. Full seating capacity is 88 — double from when they took over — and they employ anywhere from 22 to 46 people, depending on the season.

Other than the “Taggart” exit signs on the freeway — and they’re paid for by the state — the restaurant does no advertising, and every Monday it closes so the family and employees can catch their breath.

It shouldn’t work, but it does. The little restaurant out in the sticks nobody knows about — everybody knows about.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.