PARK CITY — Nobody turned a head 26 years ago when Bill White rolled into this ski town in the two-wheel drive Buick Park Avenue his recently deceased grandmother had left to him in her will.
No one had any inkling that here was a man who had come to feed the masses — the rich and the poor — least of all Bill, whose initial concern was figuring out how to feed himself.
He was in his early 20s, fresh out of Cornell University’s hotel school. Everything he owned was piled with him in the Buick he’d just coaxed 2,000 miles across the country from New York. He knew exactly one person in Utah in — the college friend who had solicited his help in selling a small Park City hotel. When that deal quickly sputtered and died, it was back to square one.
Such are the circumstances that created the undisputed restaurant king of Park City.
If you dine out in Park City, chances are good you know Bill White, indirectly if not directly. His chain of eight restaurants run the gamut in price and cuisine. There’s Italian, Asian, southwest, sushi and an American-Mexican place named bilingually after the owner: Billy Blanco’s. Every day, hundreds line up at the tables at his eateries, while hundreds more queue up at the Park City Christian Center for the free meals provided by food grown at Bill White Farms.
Park City wouldn’t starve if Bill White had never come to town, but a lot of people would no doubt go to bed much less satisfied.
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There was no grand design to do what he’s done, White will be the first to tell you that. One thing led to another to another, that’s all. Along the way came the invaluable fringe benefit of getting to learn who he was. In addition to discovering that he was a very good, maybe great capitalist, he uncovered an affinity for nature and his fellow man, all of which led him to evolve, beyond a restaurateur, into also a farmer, a philanthropist, a crusader and a bit of a philosopher.
“I’d say I’m more a student of the earth than anything else,” White says as he stands next to a 1,000-pound pig named Buddy at the 5-acre ranch he recently purchased on Old Ranch Road. The ranch is an outgrowth of the smaller parcel of land, just a little over an acre in size, he bought in 2013 on the well-traveled state Route 224 that leads to Park City’s Main Street.
He named the 224 property Bill White Farms and, as skier traffic streamed by on the street beyond, began to grow animals and plants where few would have thought to grow animals and plants.
It started out as a whim, a tiny hobby farm, but it wasn’t long before White saw another potential. What if he could use his farm as a showcase of sustainability? A place to show the world not just how much can be produced in the 21st century on very little land, but how healthy it can be and how much good it can do for others?
White immersed himself in the latest clean farming principles. He learned the best ways to fertilize and cultivate and replenish, rather than diminish, the soil. He invented and trademarked his own term for the food he produced: earthganic, a word that means no pesticides, herbicides or toxins were involved in the growing process, guaranteed.
The more he gleaned the more he grew. He decided he wanted to use the healthy food the farm was producing to feed the poor and help support other worthy causes, especially those connected to responsible land stewardship.
He obtained nonprofit status for his new operation and made arrangements with the Park City Christian Center to stock its pantry with his farm food, resulting in over 4,000 meals for the underprivileged every month.
“I was amazed to find out how many are in need in Park City, this wealthy community,” says White. “We have to limit how many times folks can come in (to the pantry) because the demand is even greater than what we can supply.”
To support kindred spirit land stewards and other good causes, White decided to offer his farm, and his food, to other nonprofits needing to raise funds. Groups such as Utah Open Lands, Summit Land Conservancy, the National Abilities Center and dozens more have been hosted at the farm.
“Any viable charity, we welcome,” says White. “We serve the food, we tell them 90 percent of what they’re eating was raised right here, and 100 percent of whatever money they make goes directly to them.”
White admits to deriving no small amount of pleasure out of being able to take the podium at these fundraising dinners so he can educate people that “our food system can be repaired and our earth can be healed.
“I believe getting people reestablished to the earth removes one of the biggest impediments that causes human suffering,” he says. “People come to the farm and they feel the health and the connection back to the earth.”
He also admits he’s not making money doing it. It’s only because of his substantial successes as a restaurateur that he’s been able to finance his foray into farming and philanthropy.
“I’m going broke quickly,” he says, grinning like a man who hasn’t gotten there yet, before adding, “I’ll soon be back to sharing bathwater again.”
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White was raised on an 80-acre cherry farm in northern Michigan, the middle of three boys — Bob, Bill and Tom — belonging to Robert and Mary Lou White. Robert White paid $2,500 for the farm in the 1960s and worked long hours at his day job traveling for Caterpillar tractors just to make the mortgage. The three boys, only two years apart in age, were raised mostly by their mom.
“I had the most glorious childhood ever, even though we didn’t have anything,” says Bill White. “Just to illustrate how dire our financial situation truly was, we only had one bathroom in the farmhouse, it didn’t have a shower, only a bathtub, and my mother would make us take a bath in the same water, all three of us. The worst thing you could do was be the last one in, soaking in this beige tepid liquid with pollywogs practically swimming in it. But she couldn’t afford more hot water, so that’s what you had to do."
By the time he was 12, Bill wanted to buy a motorcycle, but the only way he could get one was by making his own money. That led to employment beyond the farm at Don’s Drive-In, where he made $1.35 an hour chopping onions.
It was his entree into his life’s work.
Later, when a steakhouse called The Embers opened down the road on Lake Michigan, he got a job there washing dishes. After a few months he was promoted to prep cook, then salad cook, and so forth, until by the time he was in high school he was in charge of the kitchen, supervising as many as 30 employees.
An avid skier — he was on his high school ski team — White moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, as soon as he graduated, where he skied 120 days and paid for it by working nights at restaurants. Happy, but always broke, he was curious when he learned that a co-worker, a cook in the kitchen, was making $10 an hour.
How could anyone make such an enormous sum?
The cook, he learned, had gone to the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
White decided he’d go there, too.
His already extensive restaurant experience made him an exceptional student, leading to an offer to stay on and teach at the school after he had his diploma. That in turn got him an invitation to teach at the Culinary Institute’s sister school in Switzerland, a springboard that led to him getting recommendations to work at several Michelin three-star restaurants, the elite of the elite, around Europe. He did this for no pay. When people say they’ll work at a Michelin restaurant for nothing, they mean it.
Armed with all this hands-on training, White next decided to apply to the prestigious hotel school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Only one in 25 applicants make it, but he made it. By 1991 he had his degree, with a minor in real estate finance, prompting the call from his friend looking to broker the hotel deal in Park City.
In a town crawling with Realtors, White’s real estate career was extremely short-lived, an abysmal failure. But it opened the door to what he knew best: running a restaurant. Thanks to seed money from a friend’s friend, he and a business partner opened a restaurant called the Olive Barrel in an 1,800-square-foot space recently abandoned by a jewelry store in the Silver Lake Village of the Deer Valley Resort.
The partnership splintered after a year, leaving White again out of work, but a man who remembered how great the food was at the Olive Barrel called White out of the blue. “Let’s start a restaurant together,” he said.
White sketched out a proposal for a fine-dining restaurant they would locate in an old flophouse hotel at the top of Main Street.
To this day, he marvels at what happened next.
“I sent off the proposal and within 24 hours he sent me half a million dollars, and I didn’t even know what the guy looked like.”
The result was the Italian eatery Grappa, a restaurant that completely remade that old hotel into the jewel of upper Main.
On opening night in January of 1993, White recalls, “We had over 300 people waiting at the front door. That was the heyday, I’ll tell you, we were very successful.”
Success begat success. Three years later, White opened Chimayo a little lower on Main Street, featuring southwest fare, followed by Wahso, offering Japanese and southeast Asian cuisine. Next came the Windy Ridge Cafe and the Windy Ridge Bakery on Iron Horse Drive; Ghidotti’s and Sushi Blue at Kimball Junction; and Billy Blanco’s in the Pinebrook area.
“When you have one restaurant you have a job,” says White, “when you have two restaurants you have a business. And when your job’s your business you better know your business.”
The varied menus, the close proximity, the range in prices, it’s all by design.
“The secret to our formula is we’re all tight together; we’re all within a 10-minute drive so I can have one executive chef that runs all eight restaurants and one pastry chef that makes all the pastries and so on,” White says. “That works to our benefit because now we can take advantage of good buying power. You have to realize that at one point you can start cannibalizing yourself (by expansion) so we spread ourselves out, we’ve gone from high end to low end, from lunch to dinner, with a wide variety of choices, to try to capture as many of those skier days as possible when people come for their vacations.”
The eight restaurants in the Bill White Group employ as many as 650 people during the winter season.
It was in 2013, shortly after opening his eighth restaurant, Billy Blanco’s, that White purchased the property on state Route 224 that became Bill White Farms.
Like the old flophouse he turned into Grappa, the property was in ruins, a nearly 100-year-old homestead that had been abandoned for years.
It wasn’t until White began renovating the property that his thinking turned from “hobby farm” to something more relevant.
“As I studied the history of the land I realized, 'Wait a minute, there’s something here beyond what I thought was here,'” he says. “It was a complete derelict piece of property; there was not one redeeming quality the human eye could see. But I could see something. I could see that restoring the land to what it once was was a way to teach people — kids, farmers, interested parties, the list goes on and on — about not only agriculture, but about nature in general and how nature is a metaphor for human life.
"The farm represents beauty. You walk in and see the flowers, you see the ponds, you see all these surprising things, right on the highway, where you’d least expect to find natural beauty. You see the farm and feel the health and the connection back to the earth.”
Something else you see, says White unabashedly, “is a glimpse inside my heart. What you’re really seeing is my soul.”
He has big plans for his farming, his restoring, his repairing and replenishing. He’s barely getting started. At the 5-acre ranch he bought on Old Ranch Road he’s building a 100,000-gallon trout farm, where 50,000 rainbow trout will live in ideal 55-degree temperatures, right next door to chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows and lambs, all munching on approved, nutritional, grown-right-here earthganic fare.
In addition to the animals, White grows more than four dozen varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs at his ranch and farm, ranging from tomatoes to kale, from basil to oregano, from corn to bell peppers, from eggplant to asparagus, from strawberries to apples.
As White’s swath has expanded, the community has become sufficiently enamored by his efforts that the city, the county and private landowners alike have entrusted him to repair the land on Iron Mountain, a large expanse of pastures and hillside at the entrance to town. Besides his plans to grow crops there, he’d like to start a buffalo herd.
As production grows, White’s goal is to filter more and more of his homegrown, earthganic food into his eight restaurants. A little of it makes its way there now, but in the future that could increase.
“That would be the third use of the food,” he says, after the charity dinners and the food pantry. “To produce the majority of what we serve in our restaurants.”
Will all this work for the long haul? Is it sustainable?
“Well, it’s not an easy business to run,” says White. “But you can’t just think about money. I equate it to having a cow. If you have a milk cow and the money’s the milk and you’re sitting there staring at the udder of that cow waiting for the money to come out but meanwhile the cow is eating dirt and crap in unsanitary conditions, you’re focused on the wrong thing.
"You take care of the cow, the milk will come. You’ve got to focus on the front of it, not the back of it. But that’s what everybody does, they sit there waiting for the money to come out when money is the byproduct of the passion and the effort and the education that you put into your business.
"Truly that’s the way I feel about it. The tighter you are with money the less it comes back to you.”