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This time last year, as the omicron variant of COVID-19 surged, restaurants were adapting.
They expanded their take-out and curbside offerings. They found ways of packaging their products and selling them online. They invested in heat lamps and tents and opened their patios to people who preferred chilly outdoor dining to possible COVID-19 exposure.
At many restaurants now, things look close to normal — with restaurants often packed with people, most of them unmasked.
But many Utah restaurateurs are calling 2022 the toughest year they’ve ever had.
“Yes, COVID-19 has eased, and restrictions have eased. But inflation, the supply chain issues and challenges with hiring and retaining employees — all of that has been really persistent,” said Molly Kohrman, owner of Brownies! Brownies! Brownies!, at 1751 S. 1100 East in Salt Lake City. (On Monday, Dec. 12, the business announced via its Instagram page that its last day in business would be New Year’s Eve, with a sendoff party scheduled for Dec. 30 from 4 to 8 p.m.)
“The challenge right now is just sheer exhaustion,” Kohrman said. “There’s a limit to how many times you can change your business — whether that’s physically or financially. The mental drain, emotional drain of changing your whole plan and your whole vision over and over is just really challenging.”
When COVID-19 first hit, Kohrman said, Browniesx3 (as it’s often called) ramped up online ordering and curbside pickup, and moved to a full online ordering platform. They added delivery. They created a take-and-bake brownie kit, for people who felt more comfortable making food at home, rather than having more hands touch it. Each of those changes, Kohrman said, required new packaging, labels and shrink wraps.
This year, she said, there have been more stressors. The price of eggs — and Browniesx3 uses 15 to 30 dozen a week — has moved from $15-$18 a case before COVID to $60 a case. The cost of a case of butter has gone up fivefold, from $30 to $150. She can’t get unsweetened chocolate locally, because her orders are too small for bulk suppliers.
“There have been times when we just couldn’t get chocolate, or our shipment took an extra week and we used up everything,” she said. “I literally got in my car and drove around to five or six different grocery stores to buy four or five blocks of baker’s chocolate. So I go around to all these stores and clean them out, because we need an ounce of it to make one batch of brownies. … We have to unwrap everything and break it up. So it’s taking extra time, and gas, and money.”
Hanging on in West Jordan
In West Jordan, Kimberly and Jesus Vasquez, the owners of Papito Moe’s, at 7786 S. 5600 West, West Jordan, have found themselves giving up on part of their dream.
The restaurant — one of the few Puerto Rican eateries in Utah — launched in 2015 as a food truck, and the Vasquezes started a brick-and-mortar location in 2019. The plan was to have two physical locations, in West Jordan and downtown Salt Lake City, along with the truck.
For reasons not related to COVID-19, the Salt Lake City location didn’t work out. Earlier this year, they had to give up the truck, because they didn’t have the staff to support it, Kimberly Vasquez said. Staff challenges have eased up in the last couple of months, she said, but not fast enough to save the truck.
“What we’re really seeing [now] is inflation hitting us hard,” she said. “For us, as a small business — and we’ve heard this from other restaurants — it’s really hard for us to compete with some of the larger brands in the area, because they have more buying power.”
Though this year has been harder than 2020 or 2021, Vasquez said, “one thing that has been a blessing is the ability to pivot, and pivot quite often.”
One challenge, she said, is explaining Puerto Rican cuisine to Utahns — including why it costs what it does.
The Vasquezes prepare traditional recipes handed down from Kimberly’s grandmother and her husband’s grandmother — including mofongo, which Vasquez describes as being similar to garlic mashed potatoes, but made with plantains.
“It’s cool to be the only one in the state that’s doing it as a business,” Kimberly Vasquez said. “At the same time, it’s hard because Utah and this whole area has a very high population of Mexican restaurants, and Venezuelan restaurants, but we’re only doing Puerto Rican. So people are afraid to try it because they don’t understand it.”
When the neighbors move out
Armando Guerrero, owner of House of Corn, at 816 E. 9400 South in Sandy, recently posted an Instagram reel to talk about the problems his business has been facing — including the loss of the neighboring businesses in his strip mall, which has taken foot traffic down to nearly zero.
Guerrero started his business when he was a college student at Brigham Young University-Idaho. He said he noticed Mexican restaurants in the western United States served food you never see in Mexico, including flour tortillas. So when he was home on summer break, he began exploring how to import tortilla-making equipment and organic corn to the United States, so he could start his own restaurant.
After graduating from BYU-I in 2019, he moved to Utah for an internship, and launched House of Corn the next year, serving tacos and more using organic blue and red corn tortillas made from scratch. Though House of Corn started in the midst of the pandemic, the business expanded quickly, and he was able to hire eight employees.
This summer, his building suffered roof damage, and the movie theater and charter school in the shopping mall moved out. The loss of foot traffic, along with problems getting the damage covered by insurance, has put Guerrero’s business on a razor’s edge, he said. His family started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay down some of his costs.
“Many of our customers, they’re more used to the flour tortillas because they have never tried real corn tortillas,” he said. “But when they come and try the ones from House of Corn, they’re like, ‘Uh, this is a game changer.’”
If House of Corn, or Browniesx3 or Papito Moe’s, were to close, they would join a list of Utah food businesses to have shut their doors in recent months — including Hector’s Mexican Food in Millcreek, Lee’s Market near downtown Salt Lake City, and El Rancho Grande in Kearns, which shuttered after nearly 50 years in business.
In November, Les Madeleines, one of the few patisseries in the country serving Breton kouign-amann pastries, announced it would close at year’s end. Owner Romina Rasmussen said staffing shortages meant she was working constantly, and she would have to close early if she needed to do anything for herself.
Last week, Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm — which has been serving a farm-to-table menu in Boulder for 23 years, and is the first Utah restaurant to become a James Beard semifinalist — started a GoFundMe campaign, and asked customers to help it climb out from under a mountain of debt.
For House of Corn, closing would mean Guerrero’s mission to serve authentic Mexican food would be over. For Papito Moe’s, it would mean Utahns would not have the chance to eat authentic Puerto Rican cuisine.
Kimberly Vasquez, at Papito Moe’s, encouraged people to not be afraid to try something they’re not familiar with, and then “just spread the word.”
“For my husband and I, whenever we have time to go out and enjoy a meal, we prefer to do it local,” Vasquez said, adding that money spent in local restaurants goes back into the community.
Kohrman, at Browniesx3, said that local restaurants also weave the community together, by supporting fundraisers and other local events. Also, she said, “small business owners are usually a lot more willing to take a chance on an employee with a different kind of work history.”
Customers can support independent food businesses in many ways: Eating out at local restaurants, ordering local food to go, hiring local businesses to cater events — and raising awareness online by leaving five-star reviews (on sites like Google and PeopleSearch) and sharing and commenting on social media, so others can find those eateries.
“It’s sad that we’re really seeing a lot of these little businesses disappear,” Kohrman said. “We’re going to feel the effects a lot further than just their products being lost.”