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‘The Oscars of food’ just honored this southern Utah restaurant. COVID-19 has made it bittersweet

A James Beard nomination is a big deal. For Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, a pandemic keeps them from relishing it.

SHARE ‘The Oscars of food’ just honored this southern Utah restaurant. COVID-19 has made it bittersweet
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Jen Castle, left, and Blake Spalding, co-owners founders of Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm in Boulder, Utah. The restaurant, located near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, was recently nominated for Best Chef in the Mountain Region by the James Beard Foundation.

Ace Kvale Photography

BOULDER, Garfield County — Blake Spalding has been in Boulder for 20 years now. These days, she says there are more tourists passing by her restaurant than ever before.

If only they could come in.

The tiny southwest Utah town, whose population hovers around 300, sits just north of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. With Utah beginning to ease its coronavirus pandemic restrictions, the monument just reopened, bringing a flood of otherwise cooped-up visitors. And if weren’t for the coronavirus, Spalding’s restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, would be serving those visitors.

Spalding co-owns Hell’s Backbone with Jen Castle. The two have received considerable acclaim during the restaurant’s 20 years, including features in the New Yorker and O, The Oprah Magazine, as well as multiple semifinalist selections by the James Beard Foundation. Spalding defines their menu as “fanciful Four Corners cuisine,” which utilizes organic, locally produced food, much of it grown on their six-acre farm and two gardens.

This year, the James Beard Foundation nominated Hell’s Backbone for Best Chef in the Mountain region, which encompasses Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. The winner will be announced Sept. 25. This nomination is the highest culinary honor Hell’s Backbone has received thus far — “the James Beards are like the Oscars of food,” Spalding explained.

And yet, the nomination is bittersweet right now. Spalding, Castle and their employees have been trying to find a safe path toward reopening. They applied for and received Personal Paycheck Protection loans, but they’re still looking for a good source of bulk gloves, masks and sanitizer for the restaurant’s 40-plus employees. Additionally, some of the Hell’s Backbone employees who moved to Utah from out of state have had friends and extended family members back home die or become seriously ill from the disease. Spalding and Castle not only have to manage logistics, but grief.

“As a human being, the ethics of this … and asking people to work when we don’t have enough information yet, it feels like a really tricky path to walk, and stay in integrity,” Spalding said.

“I will say that in my career, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

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Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, located in Boulder, Garfield County, Utah.

Ace Kvale Photography

“Fine dining is inherently really intimate. Historically, to serve you, we would pretty much get within four inches of our guests.” — Blake Spalding

While Hell’s Backbone is highly regarded outside Utah, the restaurant is also Boulder’s lifeblood in some crucial ways. It employs a high percentage of Boulder’s population. People have moved to Boulder specifically to work at Hell’s Backbone, and several of them have launched their own businesses and raised families in the town. If the restaurant were to close permanently, the ripple effect would significantly impact Boulder’s economy, possibly its school enrollment numbers, and certainly its infrastructure. Yes, Hell’s Backbone relies on tourism, but the Boulder community relies on Hell’s Backbone.

Luckily, the restaurant has spent years establishing two other revenue streams. Its farm and gardens supply fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs to some other Utah restaurants. Hell’s Backbone also has a retail line that includes two bestselling cookbooks — “With a Measure of Grace” and “The Immeasurable Place” — as well as pancake mix, oatmeal, various spices and cooking supplies, housewares and apparel. Spalding said these other ventures were doing OK before the pandemic, but have since become a lifesaver for them. These days, the staff has pivoted to farm work and retail shipping.

“So we’re currently shipping out a lot of packages a day,” she said. “Which is good, because it also helps the post office — which we rely on very much here, because there’s no UPS or FedEx pickup here. There’s not a solution for Boulder. If the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t get funded again, we are going to be in trouble.”

Hell’s Backbone is attached to Boulder Mountain Lodge, which reopened on May 29, according to the lodge’s website. Spalding said the restaurant is exploring ways to offer room service to the lodge’s guests, which is something it has never done before. Hell’s Backbone will begin offering room service, as well as takeout and expanded open-air dining, sometime in June, but Spalding admits that “the new Hell’s Backbone Grill in the time of COVID is going to look appreciably different than the old one. And I don’t want people to feel let down or disappointed.”

Open-air dining is safer than indoor dining in the current circumstances, but Boulder’s elevation is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, and southern Utah in the summer gets quite hot. Spalding said the restaurant won’t be doing reservations in 2020, opting instead for first-come, first-serve. It will not reopen its indoor dining space until there’s a safer way to do it for the staff and guests (a COVID-19 vaccine, cure or reliable antibody tests).

Since restaurant service isn’t the only revenue stream for Hell’s Backbone, one infected worker could shut down not just the restaurant operation, but also the farming and retail revenue streams. That would have a huge impact on Boulder. So Spalding and Castle are cautiously and conservatively moving forward right now while trying to reimagine fine dining in the COVID-19 era.

“Fine dining is inherently really intimate,” Spalding explained. “Historically, to serve you, we would pretty much get within four inches of our guests. To set a plate down, … to pour a glass from a beautiful bottle of wine, you have to get very close to the table.”

She’s encouraged by the hordes of people visiting Boulder right now, and the recent James Beard honor. Spalding said Hell’s Backbone gets a ton of phone calls right now, from visitors wondering if the restaurant is open yet. Things are moving in the right direction, even if so much remains uncertain.

“It’s hard not knowing, when there’s a lot of information we still don’t have about the way this virus acts and what’s going to happen,” she said. “I’m just hoping we get more information. But we may not.”