Deep in debt, an acclaimed Utah restaurant asks for help from its many friends

Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, a James Beard award semifinalist, has started a GoFundMe campaign.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Blake Spalding, left, and Jen Castle, chef-owners of Hell's Backbone Grill & Farm, photographed on August 28, 2020. Hell's Backbone Grill, located in Boulder, launched a crowd-funding campaign on Nov. 28, 2022, with the goal of cutting into a mountain of debt after the worst summer of the restaurant's 23-year history.

One of Utah’s most acclaimed restaurants is on the verge of collapse, under a half-million dollars in debt, according to its owners — who are asking their fans and friends for help through a crowd-funding campaign.

In the first hours of the campaign, those fans responded generously.

Blake Spalding and Jen Castle, co-chefs and co-founders of Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm in Boulder, went public with their restaurant’s problems in a letter accompanying a GoFundMe campaign that went online Monday.

Spalding and Castle wrote that 2022 was the hardest year they have endured at the restaurant, at 20 N. Highway 12 in Boulder — one of the nation’s most remote towns, near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“Throughout our 23 years as restaurateurs, we’ve always identified as deeply self-reliant,” they wrote. “Even during three difficult and stressful pandemic years — and even when we received threats for advocating for the monuments — we declined offers from friends to help us fundraise for our survival. We’ve finally accepted that we need help.”

The duo wrote that “spiraling costs and a shockingly reduced summer visitation to the whole southern Utah region have turned things upside down, and we now recognize that we can’t move forward alone.”

Spalding told The Tribune that she and Castle had “made the decision that we couldn’t continue to slide into untenable debt, and were planning to let it go. And then a number of people reached out, even guests from the restaurant whose names I don’t recognize, … people who aren’t necessarily friends, or close, but were saying to us, over and over, the same thing: ‘Please don’t make this choice without us. Give us the opportunity to help.’ It took a whole month for us to wrap our heads around that, because it felt really vulnerable to put it out there.”

Winning awards, weathering COVID

Hell’s Backbone has always had challenges, with its remote location making sourcing and delivery have always been tricky. The business is also seasonal, and rises and dips according to tourist traffic.

The restaurant is known for its farm-to-table menu. Most of the produce is grown on their own farm, with a crew of four or five people, plus volunteers and interns. Most of the meat is raised, cleanly and humanely, by ranchers nearby in Garfield County.

In March, Hell’s Backbone Grill was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards in the “outstanding restaurant” category, the first Utah restaurateurs to receive the prestigious national honor.

The restaurant weathered the COVID-19 pandemic by offering takeout meals, and by receiving federal PPP loans totaling $689,587, according to a ProPublica database; all of those loans were forgiven.

The GoFundMe campaign aims to raise money to help cut into the $500,000 debt the restaurant has accumulated, allow them to buy a building to be a permanent home instead of renting, and to upgrade infrastructure at the restaurant and the farm. (In their letter, Spalding and Castle say they have been using the same refrigerators, and pots and pans, since they opened.)

As of Tuesday evening, a day and a half after the campaign was first posted, more than 1,300 people have pledged to donate $180,453.

In a follow-up to their first letter on GoFundMe, Spalding and Castle wrote that “we are positively overwhelmed by the outpouring of support — from near and far — and the love that we feel from each of you.”

Spalding and Castle set a starting goal of $324,000. “The number isn’t arbitrary — it’s 3 x $108,000. In Buddhism, 108 is an auspicious and sacred number, the completion of a cycle of mantras on a mala of beads,” they wrote. (Spalding is a practicing Buddhist.) “This is also an amount we believe will secure our short-term survival.”

Spalding said that people need to know that “we are not the only restaurant that’s in this sort of peril. … I think most smaller, independent restaurants are having a really, really hard time right now.”

She cited her friend, Salt Lake City baker Romina Rasmussen, who announced in mid-November that she will close Les Madeleines, the beloved French bakery she has owned and operated for 19 years, at the end of December. That news, Spalding said, “is a real heartbreaker, because her place is extraordinary.”

Right now, Spalding said, the online store at Hell’s Backbone Grill has slowed down, because of employees out sick with COVID-19. “We’re about to see a huge new wave of [restaurant closures],” she said, “because we all took the economic impact disaster relief loans, thinking it would give us some resilience. But I don’t think anyone expected the impact to go on so long.”

Shows of support

Fans of Hell’s Backbone Grill have been expressing their love of the restaurant, and of Spalding and Castle.

Amelia Luttmer, whose family owns property in Escalante, has been visiting the area her entire life, and has been going to the restaurant “since I was six months old,” she said.

“We visit quite regularly, when we can,” Luttmer told The Tribune. “We always try to hit Hell’s Backbone, whether for a meal or for coffee, or anything. It’s just there on Highway 12.”

Whenever she’s in Boulder, Luttmer said, she always grabs coffee and breakfast, at least. “I always look at their menus when I can, and see what they’re growing, and using the stuff over the land to what’s local in Boulder,” she said. “It’s a pure farm-to-table experience down there.”

Hell’s Backbone, Luttmer said, always has a good vibe, is always comfortable, and is just a staple of the area. “Sometimes you’ll get big groups of people there who have never been to southern Utah before,” she said. “It’s really cool to meet people who are experiencing the place for the first time.”

Caitlyn Scully, who lives in San Diego, said that when she lived and worked at Bryce Canyon National Park in 2013, “the Hell’s Backbone Grill family welcomed me graciously, with open arms, whenever I was in need of a friend and a warm meal. Their love for guests, community and sacred wild places knows no bounds.”

Hell’s Backbone, Scully said, “is more than a restaurant. It is a woman-owned business adhering to strong principles and advocating for the environment, sustainability and human rights. Their efforts are inspiring and needed in southern Utah and beyond.”

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