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La Caille: Iconic Sandy restaurant rising from the ashes

Published August 21, 2012 5:17 pm

Revamped menu and restored grounds are part of the renovation of a restaurant known as Utah's crown jewel.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sandy • Few businesses could survive a bitter lawsuit, bankruptcy and the tragic deaths of its owners. Yet Sandy's iconic La Caille restaurant has lived through those scorching times and now seems to be rising from the ashes.

Its rebirth can be found in the restored ponds, vineyards and gardens that surround the French-styled chateau. It can be tasted in the food prepared by a new chef in a recently remodeled kitchen. And it emanates from the employees, many of whom persevered during the restaurant's darkest days.

"It's the Phoenix rising from the flames," observed Martin Pernham, a local chef and owner of Martin's Fine Desserts.

Restoring the La Caille brand • The renewal of La Caille started in August 2011, when Kevin Gates, president and CEO iFreedom Direct, which specializes in home loans for veterans, paid $10 million for La Caille and the adjoining buildings. At the time, neighbors, employees, politicians and patrons were nervous about what Gates would do to the 20-acre property at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. But Gates, a native of Salt Lake City who now splits his time between Las Vegas and Utah, had good intentions.

"I didn't want to see someone go in and subdivide the property into homes," he said during a recent telephone interview. "I wanted to keep it as open space."

The businessman also believed the La Caille name was still valuable and worth saving. "It's an iconic brand in Salt Lake," he said, likening it to Snowbird, Deer Valley and Kennecott. "The previous owners just didn't have the money to keep up the place," he said.

In the last year, Gates said he has spent an additional $1.5 million in remodeling, repairs and upgrades.

Restoring the vineyard • Cleaning up the grounds was the first order of business. The initial yard waste — coupled with stacks of old furniture and broken equipment — filled 14 industrial-size garbage containers, said grounds supervisor Ed Primosic. "And there were probably another 14 more after that. It needed a lot of love."

Grounds and maintenance crews who normally took the winters off remained on the job, fixing leaks in the decorative ponds, clearing land for a vegetable garden and restoring the three-acre vineyard. The latter was something that Gates believed was one of the most attractive parts of his purchase.

He hired Michael Knight, owner of Salt Lake City's Kiler Grove Winery, to help make the vineyard productive again. It was a nostalgic business strategy, as Knight had worked with the previous owners in the late 1990s to create award-winning wines under a La Caille label.

"To me, this is Utah's premier vineyard," said Knight, noting that the Seyval Blanc grapes are a good match for the site. The French-American hybrid, when cared for properly, can survive the cold Utah winters and regular canyon winds.

But when Knight stepped in late last year, 30 to 40 percent of the vines were diseased or dead. Those vines were removed and replaced with new plants. And the old top-spray irrigation system — which encouraged mold and disease — was replaced with a more efficient drip system.

Knight expects to get about 100 pounds of fruit this fall, not enough to have commercial potential. But in a few years, when the plants have matured, "the vineyard has the ability to support a fair amount of fruit, around 8 to 10 tons, or about 500 cases of wine," he said.

On Tuesday, the Utah State Alcohol Beverage Control commission granted La Caille both a winery license and a package agency license, allowing it to produce and sell wine on site.

"Everything changed but the bill" • In recent years, customers may have noticed the decline of the grounds, but their biggest complaint was the drop in food quality — yet the prices remained some of the highest in the valley.

During the tumultuous years, "everything changed except the bill," joked Salt Lake City businessman Dean Magnesen.

With that in mind, Gates hired Brandon Howard as the restaurant's new executive director and head chef.

Howard has worked for many years in the Utah restaurant industry, most recently serving as executive chef at The Point Restaurant at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He revamped the menu, calling it "modified French" as the food is more local, seasonal and approachable to customers, but still in keeping with the restaurant's French-country theme. He also has lowered prices — entrees range from $27 to $56. Items are now available in an a la carte format, which includes first and second courses, entrees and desserts.

Since Howard came aboard, the La Caille kitchen also got a $250,000 face lift. Howard added new broilers, convection ovens, a 16-burner stove, a bakery oven and gelato machine, so that all the food could be made from scratch.

Next, he set about training kitchen staff in basic French cooking techniques, assigning the cooking staff in pairs to ensure better customer service.

When he arrived, most of the food being served was frozen or canned. Today, "about 98 percent of the food is made from scratch," Howard said.

Things that haven't changed: the low-cut dresses worn by waitresses; and the peacocks, swans and ducks that wander the property.

A second chance • La Caille isn't the first iconic property that Gates has restored. Several years ago, he purchased the Mauian, a 50-year-old boutique hotel nestled in the crescent-shaped Napili Bay, considered one of Maui's most beautiful beaches. Gates said it took several years to restore the historical two-acre property.

"It takes a lot of patience," he said. "But when it's all complete, it's always rewarding." And just like the Mauian, Gates said he believed La Callie "deserved a second chance."

While much work already has been done at La Caille, Gates says the transformation won't be complete for another three to four years.

That's a relatively short time compared to how long it took La Caille to unravel.

David Johnson and Steven Runolfson opened La Caille in 1975, adding a third partner, Mark Haug, in the 1980s. The restaurant, with its French decor and cuisine, developed a reputation as the crown jewel in Utah's fine dining arena.

But in the middle of the last decade, things began to unravel when Haug sued his two partners, alleging breach of contract. The court battle continued for years, ending in March 2010, when a 3rd District Court jury found that Runolfson and Johnson did breach their partnership agreement. They awarded Haug $4.7 million in damages. The award forced La Caille into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the owners were forced to put the property up for sale.

Steven Runolfson and his wife, Lisa, were devastated at losing the restaurant. In December 2010, the Runolfsons were found dead from gunshot wounds at Provo hotel in what police say was the result of a murder-suicide pact.

After Gates purchased the property, one of the Runolfson's daughters, Mary, continued to work at La Caille as special events coordinator. However, she left after about six months. Howard, the new chef, said she left on good terms. Mary Runalfson did not return telephone calls to the Tribune.

From rock bottom to inviting • During the transition, many local diners assumed the restaurant was closed. Weddings, a major money maker for the restaurant, dropped off, as did bookings for Christmas parties, business events and special occasion birthday or anniversary dinners.

Rob Grant, the vineyard keeper, has worked on and off at La Caille over the last four years, during a time when he said employee morale had hit rock bottom.

"It was frustrating to work somewhere that has to much potential, but to see it let go, it was disheartening," he said, noting that in the last year, things have turned around. "It's really energizing to see it get back to where it was and beyond."

Customers are noticing the changes as well.

"Before it felt like you were intruding on private property," explained Ilene Stowe, who recently hosted an international business event at La Caille. "Now it has a warm and inviting feeling."

kathys@sltrib.com

Try La Caille's Commonwealth deal

Try chef Brandon Howard's new three-course Commonwealth menu, which includes a starter, choice of entree and dessert. Items to try include the poached egg with corn cake, Kurobuta pork short ribs or the natural farm burger.

Where • La Caille, 9565 Wasatch Blvd., Sandy

When • Tuesdays, 4 p.m. to close; and Wednesday-Saturday 4 to 6 p.m.

Cost • $36 per person (tax and tip not included)

Details • 801-942-1751 or http://www.lacaille.com