Nov 30, 2022 - News

Utah Hell's Backbone Grill, other popular restaurants at risk of closing

Illustration of salad ingredients forming a frowny face on a plate.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Some of Utah's most popular eateries are fighting to stay afloat as they struggle to emerge from the pandemic.

  • Several other culinary mainstays have already closed.

Driving the news: Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder — Utah's first James Beard semifinalist for the nation's best restaurant — is trying to crowdfund its way to solvency, citing losses during COVID and rising costs.

  • Owners Blake Spalding and Jen Castle were braced to deliver "the very sad announcement that we'd be closing our doors," they wrote in a newsletter Monday. Instead, they're trying to raise $324,000 for "short-term survival."
  • Many other eateries — like Brownies x3 in Sugar House and Annie's Crepes and Pancakes in Bountiful — are warning customers of their vulnerability.
  • Several hometown institutions like Salt Lake's Les Madeleines patisserie, Hector's in Millcreek and Murray's Restaurant Morelia shut their doors this month.

Why it matters: Some at-risk businesses are community fixtures and culinary standouts, many with strong visibility and passionately loyal customers.

  • Hell's Backbone, for example, has collected an array of accolades in its 23 years.
  • That suggests the industry's economic challenges are massive, imperiling even highly successful players.

State of play: Inflated prices for raw goods, supply chain disruptions, and labor shortages have converged in "a perfect storm," Molly Kohrman, owner of Brownies x 3, told Axios.

  • Customers also are pinching pennies and buying less than they did before the pandemic, Kohrman said.
  • After spending two years drastically changing operations to keep serving customers, a lot of owners are exhausted and can't take out more loans to keep trying new things, she added.

By the numbers: Egg prices have risen from $15–$18 a case pre-pandemic to around $60 Kohrman said. Butter has risen from $1 to more than $3 per pound.

  • Meanwhile, sales are down. For example, Thanksgiving brownie pie orders were down 50% this year.
  • "In the food industry when your profit margins are around 30%, 1–2% makes a big difference. A 50% decrease is pretty significant," Kohrman said.

The latest: Hell's Backbone had raised close to $150,000 as of Tuesday afternoon. But, the owners stressed, the restaurant's future is tenuous due to rising costs and "shockingly reduced" tourism in southern Utah this year.

  • Spalding and Castle said they alerted customers last month that they were emotionally preparing to close, but decided to try fundraising after an outpouring of support.
  • "There is no path forward without you," the owners wrote. "No matter what happens, thank you for showing up all of these years."

What they're saying: "It always breaks my heart when people hear that some place is closing, and they're like 'Oh, if I'd only known, I would have come more often,'" Kohrman said. "Right now, just assume everyone is struggling. And if you can afford to go out — do it."


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Salt Lake City.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Salt Lake City stories

No stories could be found

Salt Lake Citypostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Salt Lake City.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more