The stalwart: Lynne Johnston, owner of Betty's Cafe, Vernal.

VERNAL — On this day there are a handful of customers in this quaint cafe enjoying a hearty lunch or breakfast — a heaping plate of biscuits, gravy and sausage. Fresh coffee. Open-faced roast beef sandwiches, served steaming hot.

It is traditional fare for a traditional small town full of regular people used to getting up every morning, putting in eight to 10 hours a day, or more, and then going home to their families.

But owner Lynne Johnston said it isn't so much like that anymore. Some of her customers who stop in for coffee or a giant cinnamon roll have faces full of worry and strain. They have not clocked a day at work in weeks, maybe months, or maybe even a year or more.

Since crude oil prices began their precipitous decline in 2014 and companies began tightening their expenses through layoffs, stopping exploration or closing outright, the number of customers stopping in at Betty's Cafe also has dropped.

"This may look like we've got some buzz in here, but this is slow for us," Johnston said. "I don't see anything giving us a shot in the arm until spring with the tourist business."

Vernal is dinosaur country. A towering green T-Rex statue decorated in February for Valentine's Day greets passers-by on Main Street. The town is home to the Utah Field House of Natural History, the Dinosaur Garden and is the gateway to Dinosaur National Monument, which drew close to 300,000 visitors last year.

But the allure of dinosaurs and bone digs is seasonal and not nearly enough to support families and an economy entrenched in the lucrative, but volatile, business of oil and gas production.

"It's hard times for all of us," Johnston said. "We're very concerned. Business is just dropping. Steady, steady, steady. You tighten up. Oil is just everything to this economy and town."

Johnston is in her 20th year owning and running Betty's Cafe. Her mother began the business, decorated with U.S. flags and tables that sport logos and advertisements for local businesses. The restrooms are out back.

When she sees the faces of friends and hears the stories of layoffs, unemployment checks and the slew of oil field workers abandoning town, she said it hurts.

"It's life changing. I feel like this is one of the worst times I've experienced when it is all said and done."

But she has hope. She said she believes it will be the local businesses that will hang on because they've endured these boom and bust cycles before.

"I'm not going anywhere."


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