When this Murray restaurant needed help, customers came to the rescue

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Restaurant Morelia, a family-run business that has been operating in Murray for 30 years, closed indoor seating in March and has been trying to stay open with just takeout. Things looked dire, so the family put out a plea for help on Facebook last week. Diners have really come through. Now there are lines of cars in the parking lot waiting to pick up orders.

The telephone wouldn’t stop ringing inside Restaurant Morelia, as customers placed orders for shredded beef tacos, chile verde burritos and cheese enchiladas.

Outside, dozens of cars were winding their way through the parking lot at 6098 S. State St. to pick up orders.

That continued all day. Then at 6 p.m. — three hours before the Murray restaurant’s regular closing time — owner David Gonzalez had to shut down for the day.

“It was craziness,” he said. “I knew we were going to run out of food.”

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This crush of community support started with a heartfelt plea on social media.

“We need your help and your support now more than ever,” read the Nov. 12 Instagram post. “We are currently barely staying afloat and with winter approaching we fear the worst may happen.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Multiple orders are prepared at Restaurant Morelia, a family-run business that has been operating in Murray for 30 years.

Customers — seeing that their favorite local eatery was on life-support — gave the restaurant a hefty dose of CPR, liking the post thousands of times, telling friends how important the restaurant had been in their lives and sharing that the food was authentic and delicious.

“I love the salsa and shredded beef tacos at Restaurant Morelia,” one commenter said in a Facebook post. “I even got engaged there! Please help them stay open.”

“We’ve been ordering take out 3-4 times a month since this all started. We love Dave, his staff and their perfectly consistent comfort food,” said another fan. “We’re pulling for you and praying for you!”

Gonzalez thought maybe business would pick up after his post, but he wasn’t prepared for people to start ordering like they did. The restaurant does not have online ordering, so the telephone kept ringing and the cars kept coming for pickup.

That first day, after he ran out of food, Gonzalez stayed up until 4 a.m. prepping for the next day. It was just as busy, and once again the restaurant was out of food by 6 p.m. and was forced to close early.

More than a week after the social media post was published, Gonzalez said, sales have quadrupled.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Gonzalez Jr. delivers a takeout order at Restaurant Morelia in Murray.

That’s a complete turnaround from early November, when Gonzalez was thinking he would have to close the family restaurant he opened in 1989 with his father Wily Gonzalez and his wife Laura.

Wily Gonzalez was a migrant restaurant worker in Utah who yearly returned for a month or two to his hometown of Morelia, Mexico, to see his family.

When his wife — David’s mother — passed away, he finished his children’s green card paperwork and moved them to Utah.

“Here’s a single dad trying to raise five kids in the States and working from early morning to late night,” Gonzalez recalled. “And that’s where we all developed our work ethic.”

For more than three decades, Restaurant Morelia has been a crowd pleaser for the food, but also for atmosphere. Guests feel like they are eating among friends.

Initially, Wily prepared the food, but Gonzalez quickly learned the recipes — and inherited his father’s passion for cooking — ensuring that the food stayed consistent throughout the years.

Before the pandemic, takeout was rare. Dine-in service represented more than 90% of the restaurant’s sales.

Since COVID-19, Restaurant Morelia hasn’t been able to open for sit-in dining. Restaurants in Utah have to keep a 6 feet distance between tables, under state health guidelines. Because of its small interior, that would allow Morelia to have just five tables.

Health and safety of the employees also drove the decision to offer just curbside pickup, Gonzalez said. “We kind of had to make that choice, and we chose to stay safe.”

Gonzalez said initially he thought he could survive a few months on takeout. But as the pandemic stretched into its eighth month, sales had decreased by 40% and they were close to shutting down for good.

He feared being another pandemic statistic. So far this year some 450 restaurants in Utah have closed, according to a survey conducted by the Utah Restaurant Association in September.

Gonzalez is grateful that the community his family fed over the years continues to help the restaurant stay afloat.

“My heart just gets full of emotion when I see this stuff, because I know we have really great, great customers. I knew that,” said Gonzalez, “but this thing is beyond words. What a great, great city we live in.”