Utah restaurants have closed and struggled in the pandemic. But this owner aims to open 3 new ones in 2022.

The team at Hearth and Hill in Park City plans a new storefront there, plus restaurants in downtown Salt Lake City and Sugar House.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Patrick Calipay works in the kitchen at the Hearth and Hill restaurant in Park City, on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.

It’s worth asking if Brooks Kirchheimer, owner of Hearth and Hill in Park City, has lost his mind.

Local restaurants and those around the country have struggled to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent “Great Resignation” that has found hospitality workers leaving the industry for fear of the coronavirus, weary of surly customers and eager to pursue new opportunities in an economy as hot as a pizza oven.

Yet Kirchheimer plans to open not one, but three new restaurants next year.

The secret to his confidence might be found in the free turkey dinners he gave to employees this Thanksgiving, along with quarterly and annual employee awards and COVID-19 vaccine incentives, in addition to benefits the Utah Restaurant Association says are more common: health insurance and a 401(k) match up to 6 percent for all employees who work at least 30 hours a week.

Employees also come first in Hearth and Hill’s mission statement: Its goal is to be a “gathering spot that inspires our associates, thrills our guests and enriches our community.”

Still, this question keeps the 35-year-old restaurant veteran up at night: “Do we feel comfortable from a labor standpoint that we will be able to staff and operate these restaurants?”

Three new ‘Hills’

The concepts for the three new eateries reflect the seemingly permanent changes the pandemic has made to how we eat — but also a belief that diners crave a return to normal.

Two of the restaurants will be in Salt Lake City, capitalizing on its appeal to newcomers (Utah is the nation’s fastest-growing state) and heralded in national news coverage as the best place in the nation to find a job.

“People are going to want to go out. The economy of Salt Lake and Utah is growing at a rapid pace and they need more restaurants and we wanted to be a part of that,” he said.

• First up: Hill’s Kitchen, a storefront away from Hearth and Hill. Opening in February, this catering kitchen will provide meals for up to 500-person events, from weddings to company parties to Sundance soirees.

It will include a storefront for grab-and-go sandwiches, salads and such — a change in the original design because of the popularity of curbside pickup during the pandemic.

Pick-up meals accounted for up to 40 percent of sales at Hearth even after the dining room reopened in May 2020, and those curbside deliveries led to the restaurant’s busiest days ever — on holidays including Mother’s Day and Easter.

And the trend continues: The restaurant brought in a truck to refrigerate the 100-plus turkeys used for several hundred curbside and dine-in Thanksgiving meals this year. Restaurants might prefer dine-in because that’s where most of the revenue comes, but diners want flexibility and speed.

“People think more about that today than they ever have before,” Kirchheimer said. Curbside “checks a lot of boxes for people and allows them to continue on with their daily lives and not have to sit in a restaurant for one to two hours.”

• Next summer, Urban Hill will debut in Salt Lake City’s fledgling Post District, a former industrial site between 300 and 400 West and 500 and 600 South being transformed with retail, housing and office space.

With 220 seats, a 7,300-square-foot patio and private dining rooms for up to 50, the upscale modern grill/steakhouse is poised to take advantage of an expected resurgence of conventions at the Salt Palace Convention Center, especially with a 700-room convention hotel set to open next September.

While downtown is home to a long list of smaller locally owned restaurants, larger restaurants are owned by chains, like The Cheesecake Factory and Fleming’s.

• Also next year, Heath and Hill will open a second location, with 200 seats and a large patio, at the new “Residences at Sugar Alley’' development at 2188 S. Highland Drive. It will feature the same “modern American cuisine” as at Park City, from pork gyoza and truffle mac and cheese to burgers and shrimp banh mi.

Looking out for employees

Utah has lost about 250 restaurants because of the pandemic, which also led to a loss of $2.3 billion for the industry last year, said Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association.

Nationally, employment figures show a record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September — with nearly a million leaving the leisure and hospitality industry.

Besides contending with Utah’s tight labor market, restaurant owners are concerned with energy prices that may affect travel, rental prices in a booming economy and spikes in food prices because of supply chain issues and inflation, she said.

But, while the industry is no longer on track to grow by 6.8 percent, like it was pre-pandemic, it will continue to expand, Sine predicted. “Entrepreneurs and people who have a passion for food and getting out and serving their community, they’re not stopping.”

Count Kirchheimer and his parents and co-owners, Sherry and David, in that group. To take advantage of scale for food prices and to offer employees opportunities for promotions, they have wanted to expand beyond one restaurant almost from the beginning.

Hearth and Hill opened in December 2018 with a large dog patio, extra-comfortable bar stools and located in Kimball Junction so it would draw local Park City diners, not just out-of-towners, and employees who could commute from Salt Lake County. Before opening the restaurant, Kirchheimer worked at Montage Deer Valley, Park City’s now-shuttered Zoom and other high-end locations.

The expansion also is “about seeing that Utah has a great food and beverage scene and wanting to grow with it and be a part of it and be a name within that scene,” Kirchheimer said.

Hearth and Hill employs about 60 employees now, down from 70 pre-pandemic. It will need to hire another 150 for the three new restaurants.

Daisy Clark, Hearth and Hill bar manager, said she hasn’t looked elsewhere for a job in part because of the financial perks. “My three years [at Hearth and Hill] are coming up and Brooks came up and said, ‘Do you want to know how much retirement you’ve saved?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’

“When he told me the number, I was just like what? I’m 30 years old and I don’t think about things like that too often in the hospitality industry,” Clark said, as Kirchheimer stood nearby. “And knowing they’re looking out for my immediate future and long-term future is something really rare.”

Lead host Ally Bebbling said she quit an 8-to-5 job and moved to Park City to work at Hearth and Hill because she loved previously working with Kirchheimer and Hearth’s executive chef, Jordan Harvey, at Zoom. At that restaurant, she recalls, Kirchheimer brought her flowers and chocolate-covered espresso beans and gave her the week off when her dog died.

“I truly enjoy coming to work every day. Truly enjoy it and I know they will always have my back, no matter what happens in my life,” said Bebbling. She noted that her employers have backed staff who’ve been berated by customers, and they are helping her become a manager. “They’re so supportive; I cannot express that enough.”

Like many restaurants that survived the pandemic, Hearth and Hill took advantage of federal Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans and other grants to continue to pay employees. Line cook Patrick Calipay said that’s why he remains at Hearth and Hill.

“Everybody helps each other. During COVID, the restaurant paid me a full 80 hours for one paycheck,” he said. “I got quarantined for two weeks, almost three weeks, and they still paid me.”

The restaurant has boosted pay by “10 to 20 percent,” Kirchheimer said. It also invests in training employees, creating menu matrixes that detail allergens and food sources and inviting all team members to try each new dish.

And if they find the right candidates now, they’ll hire them long before the new restaurants open — the chef for Urban Hill is already working — to guarantee they have employees.

When he wonders if he can hire, Kirchheimer has a ready answer: “We feel confident of who we are and what we are able to offer as a company to every associate who works for us.”