Vessel Kitchen defies the pandemic odds, opens new location in Salt Lake City

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Co-founder Nick Gradinger and executive chef Roe'e Levy on top of the newest Vessel Kitchen location in Salt Lake City's popular 9th and 9th neighborhood on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The spot will open Friday, May 22.

The three co-owners of Vessel Kitchen have wanted to expand into Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th neighborhood since launching their first restaurant in 2016.

Finding a suitable spot in one of the city’s most popular east-side neighborhoods would be their biggest obstacle — or so they thought.

They waited two years to get the property, another year to construct the building and had another unexpected delay while crews removed underground storage tanks from the gas station that once occupied the site.

Then came the coronavirus.

The state’s six-week moratorium on sit-down dining dealt a financial blow to the restaurant industry, with many businesses barely surviving on curbside pickup and delivery — including Vessel Kitchen’s original location in Park City and its two newer spots, in Midvale and Sandy.

Yet, on Friday, Vessel Kitchen will defy the pandemic odds and open its fourth location, at 905 E. 900 South.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Co-founder Nick Gradinger at the newest Vessel Kitchen location in Salt Lake City's popular 9th and 9th neighborhood on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The spot will open on Friday, May 22.

“We’re not going to let the current situation stop us,” co-founder Nick Gradinger said Wednesday as crews were putting the finishing touches on the almost-new 4,500-square-foot building (the brick wall on the north end is all that remains of the old Great Harvest Bread shop that once stood on the corner lot).

Gradinger, Brian Reeder and executive chef Roe’e Levy initially planned a large grand opening with live music. Instead, the debut will be a low-key launch with just takeout, curbside pickup and delivery available from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sit-down dining could start sometime in June.

Vessel Kitchen’s quick-serve menu includes salads, flatbread tacos and bowls made with fresh vegetables, grains and proteins — like braised beef, pulled pork, shredded chicken and yellowfin tuna, as well as vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Gradinger said the team is feeling all sorts of emotions — from grateful to energized.

And a little scared, especially when industry experts like Steve Hafner, CEO of OpenTable, predicts that one in every four U.S. restaurants will go out of business due to the coronavirus quarantines. And the National Restaurant Association estimates that eateries lost more than $30 billion in sales in March and $50 billion in April.

Closures have already started happening in Utah. The 5-month-old Elevo restaurant in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Wells neighborhood has become one of Utah’s first known dining casualties of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, chef/owner Jen Gilroy announced on social media that the coffee, wine and small-bites cafe, at 565 E. 2100 South, would permanently shut down May 30.

“I was looking forward to that little space. It reminded me of the original Meditrina,” said Gilroy, who closed down that struggling restaurant in Salt Lake City Central 9th district last fall.

Elevo — which served pastries, quiche, salads and flatbreads, while becoming known for its signature mushroom and brie appetizer — had been trying to survive the COVID-19 slump by offering curbside takeout. When health rules eased, it began dine-in service, with social distancing and other restrictions.

But Gilroy said she was unable to get a federal loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which made it impossible to stay in business.

She did, however, secure financial aid from the state for Porch, her restaurant in South Jordan’s Daybreak development.

Diners on Facebook lamented the upcoming Elevo closure. “This was the first place my wife and I went to once restaurants started to open up,” wrote one person. “We looked forward to going there again and again.”

Also on Tuesday, Utah State Prison officials said they will close the Serving Time Cafe, a popular breakfast and lunch joint staffed by incarcerated women.

The cafe, located adjacent to the Draper prison, had been open to the public for 13 years. It was temporarily closed recently due to restrictions with the coronavirus pandemic, but prison officials said it won’t reopen.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The newest Vessel Kitchen location in Salt Lake City's popular 9th and 9th neighborhood on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The spot will open Friday, May 22.

Gradinger said five new employees were hired at the Salt Lake City Vessel Kitchen. Normally, there would have been about three dozen, but, under the circumstances, the restaurant will pull from its other locations to maintain staffing and help meet the requirements of the federal Paycheck Protection Program loan it received.

In time, the bigger staff will come, said Gradinger, who is learning, along with his co-owners, to be patient about these things.

“It’s cool,” Grandinger said, “to finally see it happen.”